Clear Channel in San Diego: The Thin End of an Interesting Wedge

from The Art Newspaper
November 2004
By Adrian Ellis

Clear Channel is a Texas-based global media and entertainment company that enjoys a market capitalization of $29 billion and declared an annual profit last year of over $1 billion. It owns, inter alia, 1,202 radio stations, 36 TV stations and 770,000 billboards and is active in 65 countries. Since acquiring SFX entertainment in August 2000, it has extended its reach deep into the live entertainment industry, owning or leasing around 100 venues in the United States and Europe and producing, promoting and presenting individual artists and shows that range from motorbikes to Madonna to musicals.

Its success is attributed to, first, the efficiencies and economies of scale that it is able to realize through integrating these hitherto fragmented elements of the entertainment industry and, second, the opportunities for revenue generation afforded by controlling the entire supply chain from artist to consumer. Its rapid growth, primarily through acquisition, and the dominant market position it occupies have led it to be regarded with both suspicion and fear by those who believe that a more plural ownership base and less uniform programming policy would serve the public interest better. Senator John McCain introduced legislation that would break it up – which fizzled out in Congress – and it is has had a number of well-publicized brushes with the regulatory authorities.

As a result financial analysts are currently arguing that its extraordinary growth can only be continued if it can find acquisition targets in new markets, because it is hitting both formal legislative constraints on media ownership and less formal political constraints, notwithstanding close links with the Bush administration.

Clear Channel has a division, acquired three years ago, that conceives and develops exhibitions. It does this in conjunction with ‘content partners’ – often academic institutions or museums. It finds sponsors and then tours them round museums. Details of the exhibitions and their associated rental fees can be found on the Clear Channel web site.

These exhibitions have generally been in the science and natural history fields. The company has however recently begun to develop art exhibitions: two on Mexican-American art, "Chicano Visions" and "Chicano Now" which have set off on tours from San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and which draw on loans from the collector Cheech Marin; and a more ambitious show on "Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes," in association with the Vatican Museums, which is off on an eighteen month tour after its opening at the San Diego Museum of Art. A further large-scale exhibition on Troy is in the works. They have not been well reviewed in the arts pages – the general thrust is that they are gassy and lightweight and lacking the core aesthetic experience one reasonably expects of an art exhibition.

Museum professionals are, meanwhile, curious as to both motivation and strategy: why this aggressively commercial entity would tarry even for a moment in the impoverished and treacherous land of high art or heritage. It may be difficult to divine the precise rationale for Clear Channel moving into such a fastidious, self-regarding and arcane field, but one can take a stab, and it says something about the future of the sector.

Art museums throughout the world are well-used to their temporary exhibition programmes comprising a balance of curated and co-curated shows on the one hand and presented or ‘bought-in’ shows on the other. Nor do they only take in exhibitions generated by other museums. Nonprofit organizations such as the American Federation for the Arts and the Commission for International Cultural Exchange serve the market.

The ratio of self-generated to bought-in shows is, however, changing. Many regional and local museums feel increasingly unable to sustain in house the skills required to curate and install temporary exhibitions. What was regarded historically as a fundamental attribute of a museum is coming to be seen as a luxury. And although some temporary exhibitions provide a context in which understanding of the area in question is deepened through the new insights generated and disseminated in research and presentation, as many do not. They are ephemeral assemblages and recognized as such. The link between temporary exhibitions and deepening scholarly understanding is an imperfect one. As Maxwell Anderson, Director of the Whitney between 1998 and 2003, put it: "What's troubling, as you know, is that some directors will jump at big canned shows regardless of educational merit on the assumption that their boards will think of them as 'girlie-men' if they don't, their colleagues will otherwise pass them over for the next major shows on offer, or the possibility of a surplus is just too tantalizing to resist. "

These trends provide a market that Clear Channel can in principle service so long as it can generate product to cater for it. Indeed, across the world museums with temporary exhibition spaces that represent aching voids to be filled are opening by the day. Think of the Chinese market alone – where the government has asserted a target of over 1,000 new museums. With so many ‘just add water’ museums in the pipeline, few of which are being planned or budgeted with the resources to programme the highly specified, often gorgeous, temporary exhibition spaces they will contain.

Clear Channel is in some ways well positioned to ‘generate product’. Specifically, in contrast to its non-profit competitors, it has the deep pockets required to invest in research and development if so inclined; and it understands from its live entertainment business how to turn fragmented, bespoke, top-heavy, craft based activities into streamlined and industrialized ones. But it has the disadvantage of not – or perhaps not yet – having the provenance within the museum industry to secure adequate access to the raw materials required to mount art exhibitions...specifically, art. Hence the ratio of facsimiles and flim-flam in its art exhibitions to date.

It will therefore be interesting to see how the conversation between Clear Channel and loaning institutions progresses, and whether museums asked to loan objects to Clear Channel will set conditions beyond a loan fee and insurance indemnification in order to ensure that the curatorial and scholarly standards that are their ostensible raison d’etre are respected.

Clear Channel’s foray into art exhibitions should be judged on its merits – neither on the baggage the company carries in the entertainment industry nor on its status as an intrusive forprofit provider to cosy nonprofits. The criteria should, rather, be the quality of any individual exhibition; the originality and robustness of ancillary scholarship; and the quality of the alternatives. If nothing else Clear Channel’s overtures may provide a context in which the museum sector addresses the underlying challenges of programming cost-effectively and intelligently the acres of temporary exhibition space it has secured. Let is hope that others, for profit or nonprofit, give Clear Channel a run for its money.

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