The Velvet Underground Experience Is A Failure

on rock and roll archivism and exhibits in general

The Velvet Underground Experience Is A Failure

An exhibit titled “The Velvet Underground Experience” opened in New York City last week. I was so excited to hear this that I didn’t even try to find a publication to send me, I just bought a ticket of my own accord for the first Saturday after it opened. “A NEW MULTI-MEDIA ART AND MUSIC EXHIBITION - *IMMERSIVE EXHIBITION SPOTLIGHTS THE ICONIC BAND'S EARLY NYC ROOTS AND MAJOR INFLUENCE ON MUSIC, FASHION, ART AND POP CULTURE FROM THE 60'S THROUGH TODAY*” shouted the press release, and I freaked out, because it was coming from France, who have already hosted multiple extensive retrospectives on the VU, with the full participation of John Cale.

The concept of rock and roll archivism in the form of a museum-quality exhibit is relatively new in the mainstream. Yes, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in 1995, but before that, if you wanted to see memorabilia you were going to the Hard Rock Cafe (before it was a chain restaurant empire) or maybe going to a Sotheby’s rock and roll auction. I was roundly anti-RRHOF until I, you know, actually went to the place to see the Springsteen exhibit, and then was profoundly sad I never got there sooner (I’m particularly gutted I didn’t get to see the U2 exhibit; I learned that Larry Mullen, Jr. has an entire house that just stores the band’s memorabilia).

I ended up getting into the VU exhibit on a press preview evening thanks to the kindness of a friend -- it didn’t matter that I already had a ticket because, in my mind, I was always going to need to see the exhibit at least twice. The press release for the VU Experience touted 12,000 square feet of exhibit space over three floors - I was definitely going to need time for repeated viewings and extensive reflection. I mean, I saw DAVID BOWIE IS five times (in three countries) and absolutely got something out of every single viewing.

Let’s be clear: there are three floors of exhibit space, but only one directly deals with the VU. The mezzanine space is upsell for TIDAL under the guise of “listening stations”; the second floor is entirely dedicated to “its influence on modern music, fashion, art & popular culture, set against the backdrop of the band's early days collaborating with Andy Warhol in NYC in the 1960s,” which means exhibits on experimental filmmakers like Jonas Mekas.

What does this mean? The amount of actual Velvet Underground content is less than half of the exhibit space, and much of the exhibition content derives from the personal collection of a guy named Allan Rothschild, except in those circumstances where the exhibit clearly negotiated with a photographer for their particular work. Almost all of this content is definitely cool, and interesting, and yes, “worth” seeing, and you can’t compare this (or almost any) exhibit to DAVID BOWIE IS because they didn’t have the same archive to draw on. But I have old VU fanzines (hey, WHAT GOES ON) that on average had a wider, more extensive, breadth of black and white photos of random crap that was more interesting, immersive, and educational than The Velvet Underground Experience.

Other small gripes: “Headphones will be provided to allow visitors to 'plug in' for a more personalized experience.” except that there were maybe a dozen opportunities to do that, and EVERY TIME you plugged in, you caused the sound to short out for everyone else who was already plugged in (and not every outlet worked ON THE SECOND DAY OF THE EXHIBIT). Exhibition tickets cost upward of $30 and for the amount of blatant brand sponsorship that is obscene -- the Bowie tickets were $25 and that included admission to the cultural institution that hosted the exhibit, and, TYPOS. THERE ARE CONSTANT TYPOS. OH MY GOD, HIRE A PROOFREADER. THIS IS INEXCUSABLE.

And finally, the most patently offensive element, which is the quality of visual design, which is low budget, uncreative, and uninspiring. How can you put an exhibit together about a band that worked with Andy Warhol and tout their influence on culture when your exhibit design does not reflect that at all? They clearly had the money to hire actual designers!

In 2015, I visited the Ramones Museum, which happens to be in Berlin. It’s essentially a cafe and performance space that is holding one guy’s enormous Ramones collection because he ran out of room at home. But that experience is actually more rewarding, immersive and emotional than The Velvet Underground Experience. The sound consistently worked. The exhibits were easy to view. There was a vast range of items on display, from magazine clippings to promo items to rare photos. It’s not formally curated, but it is assembled in a deliberate method in a way that tells the band’s story in a more effective and deeply impactful way than The Velvet Underground Experience does, for all its sponsor dollars and fancy influencers.

It’s not cliche when people talk about how influential the VU was. They were a deeply, enormously, life-changing band, and I speak from personal experience. You walk out of DAVID BOWIE IS with a deep appreciation and sadness and clear concept of the man’s impact on the planet. You do not walk out of the The Velvet Underground Experience feeling the same way, and that’s a lost opportunity and, quite honestly, a tremendous failure.



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