I think that the decision of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to rename its Costume Institute after Anna Wintour, the artistic director of the publishing house Condé Nast and the editor of Vogue, when it reopens in May after a renovation costing $40 million is a very good example of the plutocratic confusion that has taken over art institutions in the US and how money that does not go to the tax man is manipulated to optimise the promotion of very specific businesses.
As I heard, Wintour’s name will be over a space that includes the conservation laboratory, galleries, library and offices and the reason for this is that so far, Wintour has raised around $125 million for the institute since becoming a museum trustee in 1999. These, however, raises more questions than answers. What was the role of Vogue in this? Did they profit from this exposure? What was the role of certain fashion designers in this? Why the Metropolitan puts so much energy organising blockbuster show such as Punk or Alexander McQueen instead of putting together shows that could be difficult to finance privately. In other words, why do we need Wintour if we need ‘sold out’ commercially mainstream shows at the Met. I have the impression that no one is asking these questions.
In fact, Wintour’s apotheosis takes the whole relationship between the corporate fashion world and the Metropolitan Museum to a new level. She will replace Dianne Vreeland who was the real factotum behind that institute after being fired from Vogue and sunk into depression a few decades ago. It was Vreeland (and not Wintour) who took the Costume Institute to a new level. While for Vreeland, being appointed head of the Institute was a bit of a ‘life time achievement award’ that NY elite gave her in recognition for her outstanding job in the fashion industry, Wintour’s accomplishments are less tangible and far more corporate. Her achievements have to do with fundraising but how difficult is to get money from rich people that would prefer to be featured in Vogue instead of discreetly paying their taxes. In other words, Wintour is still the head of one of the main fashion magazines which does not guarantee enough critical distance for the institute Director to maneuvre. The curator of the Punk exhibition told me that Wintour got involved in all aspects of the institute. He sounded fascinated but I do not think that that is a great idea.
At the end of the day Wintour is doing her job which is to promote Vogue while raising de-taxed money from a very select group of social wannabes and fashion houses that are currently doing business with Wintour. Where do we draw the line? It is as if now to be the head of the Met Costume Institute is part of the job of being Vogue’s editor in chief. One could say that Dianne Vreeland brought the visual image to a new level in Vogue but what did Anne Wintour do apart from raising money using the infrastructure that being the head of full functioning publishing and advertising industry brings about.. It should also be taken into account that those $125 million that she raised are public money that instead of going to the tax man go to the institute and, in the process, blurs the difference between philanthropy and glamorous tax evasion. The question is who is controlling this? I am saying this because while these individuals get more and more influential, politicians and public bodies increasingly find themselves in a clientelistic relationship with the people they are supposed to control. I am sure that senator this and that die to be invited with his wife to Wintour’s event at the Met. This is an issue that must be addressed, at some point, in order to guarantee the independence of these academic public institutions and free public money from being used for other things. Just a thought.