After my post last week on Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Michael Buitron asked in our comments section whether there were any contemporary objects featured in the film besides the Koons, which I had already mentioned, and more specifically about permissions required to reproduce contemporary art on the big screen.
The filmmakers concentrated not on recent contemporary art but on canonical nineteenth-century sculptures like Degas’ little dancer, Rodin’s Thinker, and a Canova Venus (these three are actually listed on the movie’s website) and mid-twentieth-century American art classics, all of which are activated in the movie: a large Calder mobile spins, a Jackson Pollock drip painting squirms, a Roy Lichtenstein painting of a woman cries. As Buitron suspected, these choices likely reflected the rights and reproductions issues associated with depicting contemporary art on the big screen—a topic Adam Gopnik coincidentally writes about in the June 1 issue of the New Yorker (for the record, I hadn’t read Gopnik’s “Art Attack” when I wrote my post).
The process of obtaining clearances to reproduce these images he notes was, in fact, “a minor procedural nightmare.” Gopnik interviewed filmmaker Shawn Levy, who worked with a visual effects team to bring their museum of approved works to life in the movie, and we also learn which artists would not consent. “We had to ask permission from each of the artists or their estates, and it was a double clearance issue—not only asking permission to show the work but to animate it. The one artist who turned us down outright was Claes Oldenburg. I wanted to use his clothespin. I wrote Oldenberg a letter saying that his whimsy, the re-perception of the pedestrian, was much the same as what I was trying to do in the movie. But he seemed unmoved by the argument.” In one compromise with the studio, Jasper Johns allowed one of his iconic flag paintings to be pictured but not to come to life.
In my last post, I suggested the connection between icons displayed in actual museums and their appearance in Hollywood’s fictional counterparts, so I was delighted to see that Gopnik found a real example of where art, education, and the entertainment factor of the movie truly overlapped—at LACMA:
The reactions of Levy’s two daughters, Sophie and Tess, proved the enterprise’s success. Levy recently visited the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) with his children. “The girls had been with me during the filming,” Levy recalled, “and in the BCAM they said, ‘Look, Dad, there’s a Koons here! And a Lichtenstein there!’ They had touchstones. It was kind of thrilling—they’ve been to many museums, but I’ve never seen them engaged to this extent.” He went on, “I didn’t create these movies with an educational agenda, but it’s been one of the truly satisfying aspects of my career that our first movie actually increased attendance at the American Museum of Natural History.”