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May 10, 2005

Asian Art Museum Hosts Discussion of Novel
Set in Asian Art Museum

by Ron Hogan

I went to the Rubin Museum of Art last week to see Mary Kay Zuravleff read from The Bowl Is Already Broken and then hear what museum curators Amy Poston (Brooklyn) and Joan Cumming (Boston), as well as retired art dealer Peter Marks, had to say about the novel. Moderator Deborah Solomon--yes, fellow bloggers, that Deborah Solomon--started the conversation by asking if curators were really as aesthetically driven and politically oblivious as Promise, one of the main characters in the book; Zuravleff pointed out that Promise was a character, not a type, and the pros let on that political considerations are always part of the equation. (In fact, politics would dominate much of the second half of the conversation, especially with regard to international trade embargos on artistic artifacts and the likelihood of Muslim-themed exhibitions at American museums in the current climate.) Poston, if my notes are accurate, had the evening's most direct comment on the novel itself, when she quipped that the characters all seemed like "thinly veiled" portraits of people over the years--but they were all people she was sure Zuravleff had never met. And there were plenty of great anecdotes about museum life--from the arcane restrictions on displaying items in the Smithsonian's Freer and Arthur M. Sackler galleries to an attempted robbery of priceless gold items from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

I have to admit that I was a bit nervous about having Mary Kay introduce me to Deborah Solomon afterwards, and it turned out she did know who I was, but she also remembered that I'd revised my opinions upward after hearing from Christine Schutt. Seeing her interrogatory technique in person added further insights--I could see how many of her questions seemed designed to provoke responses that spelled out all the subtexts that usually go unmentioned in canned answers. Anyway, she and I had a lovely chat about the Jonathan Safran Foer story, and about our mutual admiration of New Yorker staff writer Mark Singer (prompted by my reading of an advance copy of Character Studies, his latest collection of profiles). I just wish I'd gotten to the Rubin earlier: it's a gorgeous museum, but I only had fifteen minutes before the event began. I need to get back and see everything in it soon!

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