Form, function, & Ferraris

Ralph Lauren's vintage cars bring verve - and controversy - to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts

It's not often that an art exhibition attracts the attention of Motor Trend magazine. That publication, as well as dozens of car-aficionado websites, are extolling the glamour of "Speed, Style, and Beauty: Cars from the Ralph Lauren Collection" at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA).

The reason: a rare opportunity to see 16 vintage motorcars in the fashion designer's possession, which have not been seen by the public. Sleek exteriors aren't the only attraction - on the last Thursday of each month, the hoods are raised for a goosebump-inducing look at the powerful engines underneath.

The MFA has taken some criticism from purists, who argue that these cars are not really art, and from those who see the exhibition as promotion for Ralph Lauren. Others view it as a ploy to lure a broader audience - especially men - into the museum, a tactic that appears to be working: So far, ticket sales have been strong for the show, which opened Sunday. As of March 9, 20,000 people had bought advance tickets, according to the museum, putting the Lauren show on a par with ticket sales for the recent Rembrandt exhibition - but still below sales for the MFA's blockbuster Monet or Gauguin exhibitions.

Can an institution better known for its works by Monet, Goya, and Sargent carry the argument that there's room under the same roof for Ferrari, Porsche, and Bugatti?

MFA Director Malcolm Rogers thinks it can. At the press opening, he said Mr. Lauren views his cars as "moving art," a belief that the MFA has validated by displaying his collection in the Gund Gallery, a space that recently hosted the masters of the Art Deco movement.

Mr. Rogers is no stranger to controversy. He's come under fire for what some in the museum world consider his pop-culture approach. In 2000, the museum opened "Dangerous Curves: Art of the Guitar." Narrated by singer-songwriter James Taylor, the exhibition showcased the guitars of musical greats such as Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, and Prince - a fact that unsettled critics whose palates were more inclined toward traditional museum fare.

The museum argues that such exhibitions must be done to capture a new audience.

Darcy Kuronen, curator of "Speed, Style, and Beauty," says the show is designed to bring the museum to a "public forum," a statement that echoes the MFA's desire to open its doors to the nontraditional museumgoer.

Inevitably, not everyone agrees that the Lauren cars achieve this goal.

Harry Cooper, curator of modern art at Harvard University's Fogg Museum, says that while he agrees with the museum's inclination to present art to the masses, he doesn't agree with the presentation.

"The impulse to open up the museum is good, but does this really open it up? This is just appealing to more certain elitist ideas - what is it like to be a celebrity, what is it like to collect these cars? There's nothing democratic, nothing really populist about that," he says.

Mr. Cooper doesn't quibble with the idea that cars can have artistic merit. The curator cites New York's Museum of Modern Art and its 1951 exhibition, "Eight Automobiles."

"At MOMA, car design is treated historically. It's treated as an aspect of 20th-century art and design," he says. The curator argues that these attributes are missing from the MFA exhibition, which could have gone beyond rote visual presentation by displaying the relation between cars and the society they exemplify.

"I don't think they're trying to get people to think at all differently about cars or about why they're so attracted to cars. It's just 'Here they are and - wow!' Pointing to them and saying they're art is not an argument, and it doesn't lead to very much in the way of debate."

Lewis deSoto, professor of art at San Francisco State University, sees the matter in an entirely different light. Mr. deSoto, an artist who will showcase two of his own cars at the Aldrich Museum in Connecticut in 2006, says museums are a suitable forum for cars because "the mission of a museum is to present beauty to the world and by showing beautiful objects, whatever they may be, they're fulfilling their mission."

Brooke Hodge, curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, is familiar with the concept of showcasing cars in a museum. In 2002, Mrs. Hodge oversaw the first exhibition dedicated to the work of an American car designer. "If you can have a museum exhibition that includes chairs, light fixtures, or furniture, then why not have cars - they are important design objects that touch everyone's lives."

At the same time, Hodge warns that museums should be careful when choosing to go against popular opinion. "It's a fine line for a museum to walk with these prepackaged exhibitions that have a mass appeal - that are less esoteric, less intellectual. The museum always has to balance its mission - to show the greatest of art - against its mission to reach the largest number of people."

Irving Stackpole, a Boston resident and car connoisseur, has his own definition of art. He argues that it lies waiting to growl to life beneath the apple-red hood of Lauren's 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO. "It has what could only be described as a voluptuous shape, with its rounded thighs, its contoured body, and its aggressive forward-leaning stance - with just enough insouciance to say - 'I'm gorgeous, I know it; drool, sucker.' "

If nothing else, with this exhibition, the MFA has raised again the eternal question: What is art? As Hodge sees it, its mandate is, "Whether one agrees with these things or not, they're always good for generating a discussion, which is also part of the role of a museum - to make people think about things."

"Speed, Style, and Beauty: Cars from the Ralph Lauren Collection" continues through July 3. For ticket information, visit www.mfa.org or phone: 617-542-4MFA.

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