A Calder Balancing Act

SFMOMA brass are going through hoops to keep cantankerous heirs of the sculptor happy

Appearance is everything in the art world, and right now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art looks pretty silly. The institution scored a coup by landing the National Gallery's major retrospective of American sculptor Alexander Calder, the man who invented mobiles. But now, museum officials are in danger of frittering away whatever credit the show might earn them by kowtowing to the notoriously cantankerous Calder heirs, who have lent works to the exhibit. Under the guise of "sensitivity" toward the lenders' misplaced concerns, the museum is making some ridiculous decisions.

The first, most visible step in the museum officials' sensitivity program was to clear all mobiles from the museum store at the end of last month. "We want to be sensitive to people who think they [the mobiles] are imitative [of Calder]," explains Director of Curatorial Affairs Lori Fogerty. The six different models, produced by two craftsmen, sold for as much as $600 each; aside from the fact that they were mobiles, they bore only slight resemblance to Calder's signature designs.

Fogerty is chiefly concerned about the East Coast branch of Calders, whose cooperation is central to the show. That cooperation has proven especially difficult to secure in the past at other museums. The East Coast Calders' manipulative ways earned them a nasty feature story in the February ARTnews, a leading art journal. In it, writer Judd Tully detailed how the family, led by grandson Sandy Rower, is trying to gain sole control over the Calder name.

The Calders with whom SFMOMA is dealing also tried to undermine a major Calder exhibition that recently closed at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis; they thought the exhibit somehow diminished what they called the "artness" of the sculptor's work. Indianapolis Children's Museum Director Peter Sterling says he was able to resist their threats mainly because they hadn't lent any items for the show.

Nevertheless, the Calders put on an impressive display of intimidation before they were done, he says. They tried to get Sterling to change the show's title, and argued over the design of the show announcements and the presentation of the works.

They even complained when the museum -- which, after all, is a children's museum -- devised children's activities based on Calder's works. As part of the program, kids could try on facsimiles of Calder's jewelry, or dance under Calder's Spider mobile while listening to Little Richard's rendition of "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and watch how the change in the air currents moved the mobile. The museum also created a workroom where children could create mobiles, stabiles, or wire sculptures. Sterling says that the museum was just trying to engage children and families in the creative process while pointing out how Calder himself translated his childhood passions into his adult work.

But those efforts just angered the East Coast Calders, he says. "Part of the Calder family felt that any imitation of Sandy Calder's work by children was a denigration of his genius, that work by children reduced his work to that of a folk artist," says Sterling. (The PaceWildenstein Gallery, which represents the East Coast branch of the family, referred questions to the National Gallery, which in turn deferred to the SFMOMA, which claimed only passing familiarity with the Indianapolis show.)

That show, which ran from May 1996 to January of this year, drew an impressive 800,000 people, more than attended last year's blockbuster Cezanne show in Philadelphia.

SFMOMA staff members are aware of the Calder family's worries about presentation of the sculptor's work, Fogerty concedes. And museum store employees, who asked to remain nameless, say that clearing out mobiles is just a start in the concessions that will be made. They say that the museum will also bar children from making mobiles anywhere near the 200 Calder pieces that will cover one-and-a-half floors of gallery space.

Fogerty denies that's the case -- sort of. She says the museum isn't making concessions or imposing restrictions, but that it is "very much exercising the appropriate artistic judgments that we need to make all the time."

The manager removed the mobiles from the store because the museum is currently displaying some Calders that had been in storage, she says. She says the store manager is trying to determine whether the shop will sell any mobiles between now and the end of the six-month Calder retrospective. Or, for that matter, ever.

As for the children's activities, Fogerty says they, too, are still in the planning stages. "But we are very sensitive to making sure that the activities are in the spirit of a scholarly exhibition," she says, a statement that has a very un-childlike sound to it.

"We will try to make sure the work is treated seriously," she says. "If we had a Jackson Pollock show, we wouldn't have kids throwing paint on the floor."

Fogerty admits that "we let our curator of education know that we need to be sensitive." Education Director John Weber says that he's heard of "sensitivity" to the Calder family, adding that there is a difference between being sensitive and obeying stipulations from the family. But he says he hasn't even started to plan children's programs for the exhibition.

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