Peering into the "Curator's Office" at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is disconcerting.
Is this what they look like, the offices in which overeducated, underpaid aesthetes labor while planning glamorous shows of million-dollar art? Do they stub out cigarettes in ashtrays overflowing with butts and pour martinis from Deco shakers perched on chrome tea carts? And what about the green linoleum, the crusty old card catalogs, the stacks of undeveloped Kodak film? Is that stuff for real?
No more, but it was back in the day.
Installed in a windowless former storage room near the end of a long marble hall lined with Chinese jades, Greek statuary and African sculpture, "Curator's Office" is an art installation that's part of "More Real?," the museum's smart show of contemporary paintings, photos, videos and other art that blurs the line between truth and fiction, authentic and faux, the real and the fabricated. The exhibition's premise is that "reality" is a tricky thing to grasp at a time when documentaries are doctored, genes can be modified and votes flow to those who can fake sincerity the best.
Mark Dion, a New York-based artist, assembled the 1950s-style room from furnishings, utensils and ornaments lurking in closets and storage rooms at the museum, augmented with thrift-store purchases. Some items are part of the museum's 20th-century design collection — a Russel Wright-designed Melamine-plastic cup and saucer, for example — while other items are just old stuff (the curator's desk) that was never discarded. Yes, museum staff members did smoke in their offices back then, and directors did sip after-work cocktails in their carpeted offices while lower-echelon staffers were more likely to be spilling coffee on their linoleum floors.
"We have photos of people actually working at that desk," Dion said. "People would be shocked if they knew how frugal museums actually are; there is very little wastefulness."
Period rooms redux
Dion fabricated the "Curator's Office" in response to the museum's popular period rooms — 15 interiors whose design, materials and furnishings illustrate how people have lived at different times in various cultures, from a Ming Dynasty Chinese reception hall to an 18th-century Parisian salon, a Charleston, S.C., drawing room, a Frank Lloyd Wright hallway and a 1906 Duluth living room.
Many museums began downplaying their period rooms after World War II, but the institute bucked that trend, adding seven rooms in the past 15 years. While all boast authentic elements — typically windows, walls, flooring and plasterwork — their furnishings are often a melange appropriate to the time but not necessarily specific to the home on view.
"The Curator's Office is as 'real' as many period rooms because very few of them are intact rooms; they're really reassembled, which is what Mark did," said Elizabeth Armstrong, the museum's curator of contemporary art, who conceived the "More Real?" show. She emphasized that Dion's project is "not satirical; it's meant to raise questions about our assumptions, what we think we know, and what we think we're looking at."
Popular in the early 20th century as educational tools and 3-D style books, period rooms later lost favor with some museum professionals who considered them old-fashioned, trivially decorative, historically inauthentic, unnecessary and perhaps even a waste of precious space, since they do take up a lot of it. By mid-century even traditional museums were isolating objects by type — separate galleries for paintings, porcelain, silver, furniture — while contemporary museums preferred showing art and design in white boxes devoid of context.
Dion objects to the divide-and-display style. People don't live like that and neither should art.
"The idea of showing a soup bowl in one room and a soup spoon in another is ridiculous," he said. "I like period rooms because even if they're a constructed context, the scholarship is still pretty accurate and the idea that people can project themselves into another time or lifestyle is a very positive thing. I think of them as prototypes for installation art that started in the 1970s."
The Missing Man
What makes "Curator's Office" so intriguing is the story that Dion spun about "Barton Kestle," the fictional curator who supposedly occupied the office from 1950 until his mysterious disappearance in 1954.
A wall panel depicts Kestle as the museum's first curator of contemporary art, an Ivy League-educated expert in Dada, Surrealism and Soviet Avant Garde art who worked hard, kept long hours, may have refused to sign a Loyalty Oath, was summoned in a U.S. Senate investigation and disappeared en route to Washington, D.C. When police found nothing amiss, his abandoned office was sealed off and forgotten until its recent rediscovery.
Details of the office — water stains under Kestle's galoshes, his dusty luggage — are convincingly spooky, like a mundane but cinematic crime scene.
"We did want to reference the noir, but also the atmosphere of the 1950s, which some romanticize as a golden age, but which was also a time when scholars were discharged from universities and writers were blacklisted," said Dion. "So there is this indelible cloud over the '50s. Things like 'Mad Men' are not referenced here because those guys are on the other team. I wanted to present something about what it would have been like to be a left-leaning intellectual, always under this shadow of persecution."
The fiction was so persuasive that some museum staffers believed Kestle's story, as did a museum visitor who called the paper, urging an investigation of Kestle's disappearance.
"I'm a skeptical person surrounded by skeptics, but even people who should know better were convinced," said a bemused Dion.