Fasten your seat belts, we may be in for a bumpy ride. Even before it opens next month at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), "Speed, Style and Beauty: Cars from the Ralph Lauren Collection" is producing wary reactions. The Boston Globe has predicted that MFA director Malcolm Rogers will get a hard time from his critics, not for accepting Lauren's automobiles, but for succumbing to his public relations machinery. Art critics and museum professionals have in the past accused Rogers of pandering to popular taste to pump up admission figures, and of cashing in on the museum's collection at a time when it has a $180 million expansion under way. He sent 21 of Boston's Monets to the gallery at Steve Wynn's Bellagio hotel and casino in Las Vegas last year. In exchange, Wynn paid the MFA a reported $1 million. To other museum directors, that looked like renting out your collection, an institutional tabooand to a casino, no less.
The questions around the Lauren show don't so much concern whether an art museum is the right place to show classic cars. Automobiles have turned up in serious design exhibitions for decades. And wealthy art collectors have museum shows dedicated to their collections all the time. Why not offer one to a guy who collects cars--especially when the Boston museum is looking to bring more males into its visitor base?
But when the collector is a design tycoon and lifestyle vendor like Lauren, the real question is how to avoid making the exhibition, which will run from March 6 to July 3, just another branding opportunity for his company. The MFA's answer is to confine Lauren mostly to a big wet kiss of an interview in the catalog, where he offers purring reflections on style, plugs his running shoes and tells us that fashion and automobiles make a perfect fit. In fact, the fashion show he just sent down the New York City catwalks was inspired by his cars. The marketing plans of hungry museums and shrewd designers seem to make a pretty good fit too.
And the cars? Well, the cars are magnificent. All 16 are vintage European--the U.S. was master of mass production, not small-scale luxury output. Most were designed originally to race, like the 1929 Blower Bentley, with the supercharger that sits bluntly beneath its radiator to blast more oxygen into the fuel mix. Many of Lauren's cars were produced in limited editions, sometimes very limited. In the case of the plump 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic Coupe, that means three. That may have had something to do with its improbable steel ridgeback seam, several inches high, like a Mohawk haircut that bisects the car lengthwise, coursing along the hood, over the bulbous roof and down the steep slope of its trunk. A pure aesthetic flourish on the part of Jean Bugatti, son of company founder Ettore, the riveted seam gives the car a hand-sewn look. It also removes it so completely from the realm of the familiar as to make the Atlantic Coupe something close to a Surrealist object.