December 13, 2011

Tonight I went on a private tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The entire evening turned into one of those rare, perfect evenings in Manhattan. The magic began when I found street parking (free!). Then I walked into the Met (free!) to enjoy beautiful art, smart conversation and a nice reception.

The Met had invited the South Asian Journalists Association to check out the new Islamic art galleries. At 6 p.m., we went on a one-hour walk through the collection. It was barely enough time to get a feel for 1,200 works that span 14 centuries. But we were on a schedule. At 7 p.m., there was a talk followed by wine and samosas with mango chutney.

The Met is so romantic at night. Viewing the exhibition was amazing & amazingly peaceful. Clearly, private tours are the way to go.

The objects on display featured intricate, repetitive geometric designs that were very intense. The hypnotic patterning begins as a reading experience in the Koran and other books. From there, the calligraphy leaps off the page to inspire patterning on every possible surface. Ornamental stars and other design motifs were woven into rugs, carved into wood, laid out in tiles and detailed in earrings, vases and plates.

We were told that calligraphy — the written word — is the common bond throughout Islamic art. Another source of inspiration is architecture.

The galleries span 14 centuries of Islamic art that was collected from all over. That’s why the newly reconfigured space has been named the New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia. Yeah, I know. It’s a rather impossible name for an otherwise very memorable show.

The 2nd floor galleries occupy 19,000 square feet. And see the pretty squares on the table? Those are press kits. In the old days, reporters would go to events & receive info printed out on sheets of paper called press releases. Last night, the press releases were on CDs that came in pretty paper sleeves.

About 50 of us stayed for an informal chat with curator Navina Najat Haidar that was emcee’d by Ali Velshi, the good-humored anchor from CNN’s “Your Money” program. Of course, the journalists were thinking about news and politics while Haidar was all about the exhibition-making process.

A little background: The Met’s original Islamic art exhibition, which originally opened in 1975, closed for an overhaul in 2003 — just two years after 9/11. It’s reopening now when the mention of “Islam” or “Muslim” can still freak some people out.

Case in point: The current controversy over Lowe’s Cos. As you know, the home improvement chain’s pulled its advertising from The Learning Channel’s “All-American Muslim” show. Lowe’s was reacting to pressure from a conservative Christian group.

Well, Haidar said she hadn’t heard about the headlines but she didn’t seem fazed. If anything, it was fascinating to hear her explain that the curators spent the bulk of their time in a collective head that operated from a “pure zone” dedicated to art, history and design.

Getting into current event became important later. To figure out what to write in the descriptions on the gallery walls and how to promote the entire exhibition, the Met folks conducted market surveys. That’s when they discovered that most people don’t know the difference between the geography of Turkey and Bangladesh. But, Haidar added graciously, “we also found out that was a passion for learning” and that “people were very ready to experience objects.”

There’s so much more going on here that I could keep on writing about the power of art and journalism to do that cheese-y thing known as “changing the world.” Instead, I’ll shut up and give you the link to the Met’s new website. It is loaded with information, features and images. Each gallery has its own page that allows virtual visitors to create viewing itineraries complete with interactive maps and close-up views. By the way, if you know of any students who need to do research papers, the amount of data on the site is impressive. Just click around. You’ll see.

Clockwise from left: The rug room, the Q&A, the reception, the objects.