KARL’S BLANK CANVAS: NO CHANEL SENSATION FOR THE METROPOLITAN

Byline: Lisa Lockwood

NEW YORK — The Metropolitan Museum of Art abruptly canceled its upcoming Chanel exhibit Thursday after the museum and Karl Lagerfeld got into a dispute over whether to include the work of several contemporary artists.
In its statement, the museum insisted the exhibit had only been postponed and connected the delay to the death last November of museum curator Richard Martin. But in a phone interview, Lagerfeld said that was false.
“The statement the museum put out is ridiculous,” said Lagerfeld. “The show is not postponed, it is canceled. And it has nothing to do with the death of Richard Martin, who really had nothing to do with this exhibit.
“Alain Wertheimer [Chanel owner] and I wanted to do a modern show that was both about Chanel’s past and its future. The idea was to connect fashion and Chanel to modern art. At first, the museum and Philippe de Montebello [Met director and chief executive officer] agreed. Then last week he changed his mind,” continued Lagerfeld.
De Montebello declined to comment Thursday. However, Harold Holzer, vice president for communications for the Met, said it stood by its statement.
“It became clear to us that in the absence of Richard [Martin], who is much missed, it was going to be difficult to do this exhibition, at the level the Met visitors rightfully expect, by December. The logistics and the loss of Richard were the key problems.” The Chanel exhibit was scheduled to open Dec. 6.
Lagerfeld, who asked Ingrid Sischy, editor in chief of Interview, to advise him on the exhibit, came to New York in mid-April and had several meetings with de Montebello and other curators at the Met.
“We explained what we wanted to do, which was to ask three or four contemporary artists to contribute works of various kinds that suggested Chanel to them,” explained Lagerfeld. “We also insisted the museum move the exhibit upstairs since a bunch of old clothes in a basement doesn’t interest us.
“The idea was to have artists like Jenny Holzer and others contribute these works and to combine them with a dramatic fashion display so that we could have both old and new. At the meeting,” Lagerfeld continued, “Mr. de Montebello agreed to the idea and we started to talk to the artists involved. Then a week ago Mr. de Montebello called and said, in a rather patronizing way, ‘I’ve changed my mind.’ He said that his curator of modern art had a problem with showing the kind of art we wanted to show.
“At that point, I suggested we might want to try some new video artists, but before Ingrid and I approached them we would need a letter from the museum saying they wanted to do it.
“Otherwise, I would have felt very uncomfortable calling up important artists and asking them for their ideas and for them to take a lot of time for an exhibit that might not happen. Mr. de Montebello said he couldn’t provide such a letter, so I said then, ‘I”m afraid there is no exhibit.’
“I feel sorry about this, because Anna [Wintour, who was co-chairing the Costume Institute gala] is a friend and she has worked hard.
“But the museum has such old-fashioned ideas. It became entirely hopeless. They wanted an exhibit of a bunch of old clothes. I am not interested in a retrospective of a bunch of old clothes,” said Lagerfeld.
However, the museum tried to downplay any conflict with the designer. “As the exhibition was conceived, and because of its large scope, mounting it would have involved extensive and complicated design elements that could not be produced in the required time frame,” the Museum said in a statement. “For reasons of both logistics and geography, it would postpone the exhibition with the hope of reorganizing it at a later date.” It said it planned to announce another December Costume Institute exhibition soon.
The Met declined to specify the logistical problems. But other sources close to the museum contended that in recent days, several senior officials and curators had become concerned that the museum was ceding too much control of the exhibit to Chanel, which had planned to pick up the lion’s share of the cost.
Lagerfeld clearly didn’t want to do a typical exhibition. The latest plan called for a giant fashion installation and video art to celebrate Chanel. The Met had agreed to move the exhibit from the basement level to the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Galleries on the second floor. And, according to sources close to Lagerfeld, the idea behind the exhibit was to link Coco Chanel and the art of her time to that of the new century, since the designer had such strong relationships with artists. Although the museum initially gave the go-ahead to the artists’ participation, these sources added, officials shifted gears several times before changing their minds completely.
“I think everybody at Chanel and the Met wants to do it in the right way,” commented Wintour. “They don’t truly have a true curator in place, and there was nobody there to mastermind what the Met wants. There was nobody there to make a cohesive vision.
“It started with discussions with Richard [Martin], and you need someone who’s a strong curator, and the Met doesn’t have that person right now,” said Wintour.
Arie Kopelman, president and chief operating officer of Chanel, said, “We have supported Mr. Lagerfeld’s perspective and his way of doing this thing totally. Unfortunately it didn’t work out. We’re supportive of Karl and the way he handled this thing. It was fair, above board and done with exceptional creativity that would have taken it to another level of an exhibit, beyond being a retrospective of fashion, which is a dated idea. We were trying to make it modern and captivating.”