"I don't do appraisals, because I am a museum administrator. I can only speak on the history." So says Mark Hall-Patton of the Clark County Museum, Nevada, one of the most recognizable museum professionals in America due to his appearances on the History Channel's Pawn Stars reality television show about the goings-on of a high-end pawnshop. Hall-Patton provides expertise on historical objects that come across the glass counter for appraisal and resale. Among the various specialists who appear on the show to authenticate objects, the museum administrator stands out for his willingness to offer loads of detailed information on objects while stopping just short of suggesting a monetary value.
The International Council of Museums' Code of Ethics strictly forbids appraisals by staff representing a nonprofit museum; most institutions disburse an unbiased list of local appraisers to the public when asked to give the value of an object, maintaining the stance that art and historical objects are priceless. While their tax-exempt status requires museums to keep a particular distance from monetary value, the relationship between the objects museums collect and the value of those objects evokes a gray area more frequently than many like to admit. Hall-Patton may not estimate dollar values, but his assessments undoubtedly contribute to the sales cycle of historical objects happening in the pawnshop.
Liu Ding's Store: Take Home and Make Real the Priceless in Your Heart at the Frye gives physical form to the space between the value-free image museums project and the value-ridden imagery across their walls. Occupying a narrow, hallwaylike gallery space, the Chinese conceptual artist's installation is made entirely of paintings created by factory workers, who reproduced two fragments of the Frye's androgynous femme fatale painting Sin, minus the femme fatale. Representations of the painting's garish frame and disjointed serpent float in isolation within otherwise blank canvases.
These partial representations cannot begin to hold their own against their bizarrely striking original, displayed near the entrance to the installation. Instead, they construct a hall of mirrored images that emptily reflect their source without its substance. Interspersed among the wall-mounted paintings, stacks of canvases turned to their reverse sides introduce a grid pattern that imitates the architectural features of the adjacent Frye gift shop's wooden walls and square windows.
The decision to locate the exhibition between the Frye gift shop and the current display of its founding collection was made with undeniable intent. Liu Ding's Store is a real store as much as an installation. All paintings are for sale through an affiliated website (proceeds benefit the artist, not the museum, officials are quick to point out), their prices based on physical size, beginning at $139. Smaller components of the exhibition also spill into the museum's shop, where the artist's pink and green tables hold objects from the store selected and grouped categorically by Liu—"For Children," "Most Popular Objects in the Frye Museum Store," and "Munich Secession." Each of these is an installation for sale, too. (Profit accrues to the artist after the retail value of the store's items, which goes to the museum, is subtracted from the purchase price.)
The contents of these tables—including writings by Nietzsche, Space Needle ephemera, postcards of the Frye collection, and even the Sin reproductions—are far less interesting than the overall ease with which Liu Ding's Store inserts itself within a museum. Wandering between the exhibition, collection, and museum-store spaces happens so seamlessly that it is a borderline letdown; putting into a conventional museum gallery a factory-made exhibition whose entire contents are immediately available for sale seems like a radical enough gesture to have impact. Yet, exiting through the museum shop has become cliché to the point that people no longer complain about the use of educational exhibitions to lead immediately into shopping experiences. We have accepted that this is how the world works: Stores and museums are inextricably linked.
The questions Liu's factory-produced paintings raise surrounding authenticity and uniqueness—values that largely define museums and the reasons their visitors come to their buildings—are hardly new. However, the fact that both authenticity and uniqueness dissolve in the context of an installation-cum-museum-store indicates the challenging role of the actual museum store. While addressing visitor demand and revenue needs has benefits, less desirable implications reside beneath the surface appeal. Beyond linking an intrinsically valuable experience to one of consumption, stores also reinforce the notion that the museum's contents can be produced en masse and have a purchasable monetary value, as the experience of Liu Ding's Store attests. If museums are truly committed to the distance from value that they outwardly project, a reconsideration of the priceless in their hearts should be in order. The museum that can't make its store interesting and relevant beyond selling ephemera should find a better use for the space.