John Oliver awards grants to five museums to stave off deaccessioning

Calling All Serious Art Fans

John Oliver awards grants to five museums to stave off deaccessioning

The eclectic mirrored facade of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore (-ted/Flickr/Accessed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

Five American museums that have struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic are getting a financial and promotional boost from a concerned art lover—British-American comedian and television host John Oliver.

Oliver and the crew of his weekly HBO series Last Week Tonight with John Oliver are giving $10,000 to each museum to help it recover from the lockdowns and crowd restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, plus another $10,000 to a regional food bank designated by each museum, for a total donation of $100,000.

In addition, Oliver is lending three of his own paintings to the cultural institutions to display for three weeks each to help build back attendance now that they’ve reopened as more people get vaccinations. He also will feature the museums on his program.

The five museums are winners of a one-of-a-kind contest that Oliver launched last fall in response to the pandemic, called “Last Week Tonight’s Gallery for Cultural Enrichment,” or “Masterpiece Gallery.” The winners were selected from among nearly 1000 museums that competed to display Oliver’s works of art and the tour starts next month.

The five museums chosen to benefit from the publicity and financial support are:

The Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, which is exhibiting Oliver’s art from September 7 to 28; the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago from October 5 through 26; the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore from November 1 through 22; the William V. Banks Broadcast Museum & Media Center in Detroit, from November 30 to December 21; and the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, from January 4 through 25.

The three works that will go on tour are: Stay Up Late, a 1992 watercolor painting on paper by Brian Swords; Ties, by Judith Kudlow, an oil painting on canvas, date unknown; and Wendy Williams Eating A Lamb Chop, a 2020 acrylic painting on plywood board, artist unknown.

In first announcing the contest on October 5, 2020, Oliver said his goal was both to assist museums that were forced to close during the public health crisis and to enrich Americans culturally by sharing art from his private collection.

Oliver told viewers that many cultural institutions were struggling financially and even considering selling works of art in order to survive.

“Museums have taken a huge hit during the pandemic and some have had to get imaginative about ways to raise revenue and attention, from live-streaming galas to offering free downloads of artwork,” he said. “But the truth is, for many beloved institutions, it’s just not going to be enough.”

After showing one publicity stunt where penguins from the Kansas City Zoo toured the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art while it was closed to the public, and trashing Claude Monet as a “pop culture figure” who does little more than “vomit pastels and give unimaginative dum-dums something pretty to hang in their powder rooms,” Oliver got serious about his reasons for sounding the alarm.

“Museums are supposed to be lasting monuments to scientific, cultural and artistic interests, not be as disposable as the fourth H&M in Times Square,” he said, showing a graphic from the American Alliance of Museums indicating that 33 percent of the country’s museums may be facing permanent closure.

“Things are so bad, the Association of Art Museum Directors recently relaxed their guidelines, allowing museums to sell off pieces of art in order to help make ends meet,” he continued. “The Brooklyn Museum has already started doing that, and it’s not just major institutions. There are tiny museums across this country that are really struggling. And this is where we may actually be able to help.”

Oliver said the paintings he’s offering to lend for display constitute a “small but high-quality collection of modern masterpieces” that art lovers will want to see in person. He explained that Ties is part of Kudlow’s “career-long exploration of a world without her husband Larry” and that Stay Up Late depicts “two rats in a post-coital embrace,” otherwise known as “rat erotica.” He has called the rat painting both the Mona Lisa and the “piece de resistance” of his collection and referred to Swords as his Leonardo da Vinci. “It’s like if Monet had a furry period.”

Talk show host Wendy Williams gave him the painting that depicts her eating a lamb chop, after he raved on air about the “magnificent lockdown version” of her program and complimented her on the “many weird foodstuffs” she ate during her broadcasts. “If this isn’t a very elegant painting of Wendy eating a lamb chop,” he marveled, “I certainly don’t know what is.”

Some museums mounted ambitious social media campaigns to win Oliver’s favor, filming videos to say why they should be selected and asking their members to sign petitions and contact the show’s producers to lobby them. Their initiatives garnered attention for both the applicants and Oliver’s show.

The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) created a work of art as part of its winning application: It photoshopped Oliver’s face onto a black and white image of the writer Oscar Wilde, who famously said: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, the museum’s founder and director, said she was honored that the AVAM was selected and grateful to Oliver for calling attention to the plight of the country’s cultural institutions.

“Firstly, we were deeply moved that Mr. Oliver recognized and cared that the COVID pandemic and its forced public closures had caused grievous losses to museums,” she said. “That he then cooked up such a highly visible and fun challenge to publicly underscore that need – well, we were smitten!”

Museums such as AVAM have been “particularly challenged during the shutdown of COVID because we earn through our weddings and corporate event rentals such a big proportion of our sustaining revenue,” Hoffberger said. “Out of a budget of what’s normally $3 million, which is modest by any standard, we lost[…] $1.19 million in income because of having to be closed.”

No one else has stepped forward to help museums in such a creative way, she added.

The Museum of Broadcast Communications sent Oliver a humorous video, stressing why it’s a good fit to host Oliver’s television-inspired collection. The museum selected the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Chicago’s food bank, as its charitable partner to receive $10,000 from the contest. To add more support, the museum is asking visitors to bring a non-perishable food donation, canned or boxed, in lieu of admission to Oliver’s exhibit.

“We are grateful to John Oliver and his staff for this incredible – and fun – honor,” said the museum’s executive director Susy Schultz in a statement. “We wrote a compelling letter, and our team went all out in our video entry. We also appreciated having the star power of Svengoolie (Rich Koz) and Jim Roche, who helped us make our sometimes silly and very compelling case in the video pitch for why the museum deserves this honor.”

Representatives for Oliver’s show declined to say why his team chose the museums it did or whether Oliver would visit the winning locations. The winners were announced in a two-minute video in which Oliver revealed the locations and dates of his Cultural Enrichment tour.

Oliver told viewers last year that he is just trying to do his part to soothe and improve the world by exhibiting his art.

“In moments of suffering, humanity has time and again found solace in the arts,” he said. With this tour, “you too will be able to feast your eyes upon true art like Wendy is feasting upon that lamp chop. You will not regret it, I promise.”