By Jef With One F
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"First Down" also features a lengthy promotional video that looks a lot like a commercial. There is a museum bench placed in front of it for your viewing comfort. This exhibit takes advantage of every crass opportunity possible.
The show's comments book contains remarks from some enthusiastic fans. A lot of them mention how "hot" David Carr is and add inscriptions like "Texans we LUV YA! Stay motivated!" Also: "I am the ultimate Texans fan! I never miss a game and I David Carr! I also photography so this couldn't get much better. Texans rock Houston! David rocks!" The majority of comments, interspersed with kids' drawings and teenage graffiti, are positive. But some viewers were not quite as swayed by the exhibition: "Strictly commercial -- an ad for this business! Not art," opined one. Another quipped, "This is an art museum, not a sports bar! Next you'll rename the museum MFAHooters."
Of course, there's also the attendant merchandising, something that has become commonplace at practically every museum exhibition in the country. At the gift shop, we find a host of Texans paraphernalia: Texans checkers with helmet-shaped playing pieces, "Fan Face" masks that apparently save you the bother of actually using paint, bobble-head David Carr dolls, football-shaped serving trays and the pièce de résistance, a T-shirt-shaped coozie that says "First Down" on the front and "MFAH 1" on the back. All of these splendid gifts are sold by slightly embarrassed museum employees.
Boil down the MFAH's rationale for putting on this show, and the message is this: An exhibition about football will lure the city's beer-quaffing, crotch-scratching lumpenproles into the museum. But too often people assume that there's some huge chasm between people who like art and people who like sports -- you know, the old high school stereotypes. Such base pandering to the supposedly lowest common denominator only reinforces an off-putting impression of elitism.
The real rationale behind this exhibition is a craven, greedy desire to service trustee Bob McNair, get some scratch from him for the museum and advertise his business. An NFL franchise is a business. The Oilers, er, Titans are a case in point. Obviously, the departed team -- and all the others, with the exception of the Packers -- are not civic entities, however much team owners try to perpetuate that myth.
The point isn't that football has no place in the museum. The point is that crap vanity exhibitions have no place in the museum. Football is an integral part of American popular culture, permeating everything from politics to art to religion. It is, for example, in the envelope-pushing work of Matthew Barney. The art star/former football player has integrated a host of sports and football references into his multimedia art. You could make a fascinating show exploring football in art and culture, but this ain't it.
Happily, people are more discerning than the MFAH thinks they are. Each time I've visited the show (more often than anyone in their right mind should), it has been desolate. Even on three separate Thursday nights when admission is free, and the museum's open until 9 p.m. -- a free show about football! that should really bring them in!-- I didn't see more than a handful of people wandering through. The museum's MoMA show, however, has been consistently packed. Good programming wins out.
At the press preview, Marzio said that this was an exhibition that "probably could only happen in a city like Houston." Sadly, that may be true. The city identified with Enron's corporate shamelessness is also host to this small-scale display of nonprofit shamelessness. Marzio, who received a $1.7 million bonus in 2000 and laid off longtime employees in 2003 -- after reassuring them months earlier that there would be no layoffs -- has been quoted as telling his colleagues they'd be well advised to "learn their lessons from the for-profit sector." Maybe he should be more selective about which for-profits.