Only YOU can help the High Museum pick new art

No, it’s not Uncle Sam recruiting for Afghanistan, or Smokey Bear trying to prevent forest fires.

It’s High Museum of Art decorative arts and design curator Ron Labaco attempting to persuade patrons to vote in favor of the museum acquiring some very au courant furniture, a chair and a table from Stockholm’s Front Design. He and six fellow High curators have taken their campaigns viral on behalf of particular works they’re hoping to get added to the museum’s permanent collection.

Letting museum supporters vote on new purchases is the latest twist for arts organizations to cozy up to donors, and the High is very quick to point out that it didn’t come up with the bright idea. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among other institutions, have had success opening up a process that’s typically handled behind a closed boardroom door.

Anyone can view the roughly minute-long YouTube videos (go to www.High.org/CollectorsEvening), but the voting will be done Saturday night by those attending the High’s first Collectors’ Evening benefit. The seated dinner at the W Hotel in Midtown, where the curators will expand their pitches and show off the coveted objects, is a pricey affair: $500 per person.

But the proceeds, with at least 150 patrons expected, will pay for at least one, and possibly a couple or several, of the works, which range in price from $25,000 to $35,000.

Curators aren't usually put in a role similar to used car salesmen (in this case, very fancy used cars), but High director of collections and exhibitions David Brenneman, who also is the museum's European art curator, said he and his colleagues are game.

“We do this all the time anyway, we just simply don’t do it in competition with each other,”  Brenneman said. “Clearly we’re all scoping each other out, trying to figure out who’s got the coolest object, and what we have to say to make our object the most appealing.”

Maybe it's the curatorial method acting in the videos, but all the works seem pretty cool, in fact. They range from a soapstone figurative sculpture from the Kingdom of the Kongo on the central African coast, to a suite of 20 Paul Fusco photographs of people paying respects as the Robert F. Kennedy funeral train moves down the Eastern Seaboard in 1968, to a Kehinde Wiley painting from a series created in Rio de Janeiro in which young men from the slums pose as figures from public sculptures in that city.

"It was fun making it," said Labaco of his video, which includes a visual trick in which a tiny chair appears in front of him to his apparent surprise, much like the way Front Design improvises its "Sketch Furniture." Labaco's video even links to a performance art-inspired one showing the creative process of the Stockholm designers.

"Ultimately this may help donors perhaps think about a [High] department  that they may not have been previously engaged by, and sort of think about art in a different way," Labaco added. "And hopefully we'll reach a younger audience too, because that's one of our mandates: to help develop the new generation [of supporters]."

It's certainly a different approach for the High, whose collecting process, Brenneman acknowledges, is "pretty behind the scenes." The museum has a 14-member Collections Committee of board members that meets three to four times a year. Curators present objects to that committee, which votes to approve or not approve acquisition before sending its recommendation to the board's executive committee for final approval.

Counting purchases and donations, more than 300 works enter the High's 12,000-piece permanent collection annually.

High officials are hoping that after curators make two-minute presentations Saturday night and take audience questions, some collectors will feel the passion of a more open process and step forward and purchase pieces for the museum.

Which curator has the best chance of closing the deal? "I have to say that we're all contenders," Labaco said.

Asked his personal preference, collections and exhibitions director Brenneman said, diplomatically, "I prefer them all, you know. Like, which child do you love the most?"

Event preview

Collector's Evening

6:30 Saturday at the W Atlanta Midtown, 188 14th St. $500 (includes cocktails, dinner). Reservations: Call Ruth Kelly, 404-733-4557. www.High.org/CollectorsEvening

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