Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Harold Koda on Fashion in the Art Museum at the Bata Shoe Museum Founder's Lecture

Harold Koda (Photo by Karin Willis)
Last night, Sonja Bata introduced The Founder's Lecture series at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto as being part of a new initiative to bring "one truly outstanding personality" related to fashion to speak about their work. Harold Koda, the "rock star of fashion curators",  is the curator in charge of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was the first speaker in the series.

Harold's talk was entitled "The Arrangement: Fashion in the Art Museum" and traced the history of the costume collection at the Met from its earliest incarnation in 1947 as a resource collection for the fashion industry through to the present as one of the largest costume collections in the world.

The history of the Costume Institute is a story of personalities - from Diana Vreeland through to Richard Martin and Harold himself. An engaging speaker, both brilliant and humble, Harold kept all of us in rapt attention throughout his talk.

Not shy about the necessity of raising funds to support the Costume Institute, Harold mentioned the  strategies used by the museum to create excitement and raise funds for the collection. He gave credit to Diana Vreeland for recognizing that the annual party needed to have a high and glamorous profile in order that people would pay a lot of money to attend. He gave credit to Richard Martin who had the idea to create conceptually developed themes to generate audiences. Harold did not take any credit for himself, but he should have -- for his intra-museum collaborations for shows like "Dangerous Laisons" and his foresight in developing exhibitions of women of style like Jacqueline Kennedy and Nan Kemper as well as monographic designer displays like Chanel and Alexander McQueen.

Although fashion is one of the industries that drives the world economy, it seems that there is an uneasy relationship between fashion and finance and I was impressed that Harold addressed this head on. He said that when the museum presents a monographic designer exhibition (like Chanel), they often receive criticism as if there has been some kind of "collusion between high culture and the museum". And this problem is "complicated by fashion brands curating their own shows" in which the "concept never becomes as lucid as having someone outside the house reflect on it." Although the museum has to ask for the cooperation (and often sponsorship) of the fashion house, he made the point that "we are not working for the fashion company...we ask for access to their collection and archives...but there is a type of firewall between curation and the company."

Harold also talked briefly about the relationship between fashion and art and he mentioned that art is something that "elevates us beyond our daily experience". He gave examples of a few designers that he feels do this including Hussein Chalayn (and his airplane dress), Roberto Capucci who used "dress as a medium for sculpture" and Jean Paul Gaultier who uses "fashion as a vehicle for some other narrative". He said that the pattern for collecting at the Costume Institute is "focused more and more on the objects that have artistic virtue but are estranged from the experience of daily life".

To read more about Harold's views on the relationship between fashion and art, visit Fashion Projects here for the transcript of our conversation.

To join the Bata Shoe Museum and be at the front of the line for other illuminating talks and their upcoming show on Roger Vivier, visit their website here.

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