There are a couple of ways to get your name on a museum’s wall, with the most obvious approach being to create a piece of art that a museum might decide to exhibit. Unfortunately, that sometimes requires talent, but luckily, there’s always another way: You can just give the museum a ton of money.
Of course, saying “yes” to these big fat checks can backfire for some institutions—just think of all the hallowed halls currently ripping the Sackler family’s name off the walls. Now, a university museum has been accused of taking the usual cash-for-naming-rights deal even further: Not only did Cal State Long Beach reportedly rename both its university museum and a gallery within it after a donor, but the museum has added more than 150 of her (very bad) creations to its permanent collection and is currently displaying them in the gallery that bears her name. According to a report from the LA Times, the world can now see the works of Carolyn Campagna Kleefeld at the Carolyn Campagna Kleefeld Contemporary Art Museum’s Carolyn Campagna Kleefeld Gallery.
The Times’ Christopher Knight writes that Kleefeld, a visual artist, poet, and self-help book author, cut a $10 million check to California State University, Long Beach. Around the same time that the school’s former University Art Museum got a new name and a facelift courtesy of all that cash, it also decided to champion her very little-known work. The museum’s director told the Times that “the artist approached the university about making the paintings donation, and the school responded favorably, along with a request for a cash gift.” At least they’re not beating around the bush about it! Thanks to the deal, Kleefeld’s paintings now make up around six percent of the museum’s total holding.
It’s important to note that this art is not at all good. Knight, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, writes that the works are “frankly terrible — by far the worst I’ve seen on display in a serious exhibition venue, public or private, for-profit or nonprofit, in years.” A professor at the university told the Times that if the exhibited work “was a student applicant’s portfolio, they wouldn’t get admitted to the program.” Picture “acupuncturist’s waiting room decor,” and you’ll have some idea of the style she’s working in.
In addition to her artwork, Kleefeld is also the author of books like Immortal Seeds: Bearing Gold from the Abyss and The Alchemy of Possibility: Reinventing Your Personal Mythology. Her late husband was apparently one of Christopher Walken’s stunt doubles, and she’s the daughter of another wealthy California patron of the arts.
The art may be bad, but the message the whole deal sends is even worse. “A permanent chunk of a public university’s tax-subsidized museum facility and artistic program has been effectively privatized to advance the personal interests of a wealthy patron,” Knight writes, noting that the students at CSULB “are being shown that private wealth will prevail in the public sphere, even in the absence of actual achievement.”
It all recalls a story from last fall, which found the world reacting in horror to UC Santa Barbara’s plans for a dystopia-worthy windowless dormitory designed by Charlie Munger, a billionaire donor. In lieu of windows, Munger’s thinking went, the dorm rooms could have fake digital displays, like those found on Disney cruises, where “starfish come in and wink at your children.” An architect hired to consult on the project wrote in his resignation letter that he believed “the basic concept of Munger Hall as a place for students to live is unsupportable from my perspective as an architect, a parent, and a human being.”
From art to Twitter to outer space to public education, it looks like truly nowhere is safe from rich people’s whims. I always used to feel queasy whenever I saw David Koch’s name on the dance theater at Lincoln Center, but really I should have been thanking my lucky stars that at least Koch himself wasn’t strutting his stuff on stage in a pair of tights.