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The best things in Porsche By Design, the N.C. Museum of Art's first-ever design show, turn out to be the memories of the visitors.

The NCMA fills its galleries with Porsches, but where's the curation? 

Porsche Type 64 Berlin-Rom Racer, 1938

Photo courtesy of N.C. Museum of Art

Porsche Type 64 Berlin-Rom Racer, 1938

The Porsches have come to Raleigh. Borrowed from private collections and celebrities, as well as from the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, Germany, 22 luxury automobiles and racing cars are parked in the main gallery at the North Carolina Museum of Art for the next several months. Unfortunately, the only difference between this exhibition and a car dealership's showroom is that no salesmen sidle up to tell you about financing plans.

The woefully undercurated Porsche By Design: Seducing Speed at the NCMA, as the venerable institution's first-ever design show, is an embarrassment. The NCMA's grand claim of presenting these cars as "hollow, rolling sculpture"—a phrase borrowed from the Museum of Modern Art's landmark 1951 exhibit Eight Automobiles—should garner a ticket for driving on the wrong side of the curatorial road.

Also, in a state with the sixth-highest unemployment rate in the country, this opportunity to worship the toys of the rich seems the worst kind of socioeconomic taunting, though the NCMA can hardly be strung up for its timing as years of planning went into the show. Then again, it might be perfectly timed as just the kind of populist fantasy that would appeal to a governor and legislature that's shown budgetary disdain for the arts. Get those elitist paintings outta here—let's see some cars.

Because that's all the show is: cars, on low platforms, in white rooms. Politics aside, Porsche By Design's failings as a design show are glaring when you consider the history of industrial design exhibitions, particularly those including cars. MoMA's pioneering 1934 Machine Art show, featuring propeller blades, industrial springs and ball bearings, household objects and lab equipment, took pains to display the objects like sculptures and paintings elsewhere in the museum, suggesting an aesthetic consideration beyond the fact of the object's use within a machine or as part of an everyday task.

The architect Philip Johnson designed that show, as well as Eight Automobiles and its follow-up in 1953, Ten Automobiles, in the museum's garden. In his exhibition design for the 1951 show, Johnson subtly acknowledged the car's connection to the American landscape and home, painting the gallery walls sky blue and hanging an awning-like canopy over the outdoor models.

We've seen high-quality design curation from local institutions in recent years, such as the restlessly curious Art Without Artists at the Gregg Museum of Art and Design at N.C. State and CAM Raleigh's Deep Surface: Contemporary Ornament and Pattern, which showed both the triumph and the warp of the collision between fine art and commercial production. In both of those shows, curatorial staff grounded their work ideologically, giving industrial and commercial objects a context within which to signify as artifacts and asking questions about how aesthetics relates to utility.

But Porsche By Design, curated by automotive journalist and museum consultant Ken Gross, a former director of the Petersen Automotive Museum, with the NCMA's Barbara Wiedemann in a managing curator role, provides no framework other than the Porsche family's timeline. Even then, short shrift is given to patriarch Ferdinand Porsche's design of the Volkswagen—Hitler's commission for a "people's car"—although the Berlin-Rom racer that opens the show uncannily resembles a Beetle. Wouldn't a Volkswagen or two have been of some use in this show?

Despite an approving use of a quote by MoMA's architecture and design director Arthur Drexler about cars as architecture or sculpture, the curators and exhibit designers obviously didn't consider the cars as either. First of all, the cars are placed way too low. You have to crouch to see into their cockpits, excepting a few more commercially shaped models. The curve line of each car's body is well below the sight line of a viewer. Nothing mechanical is revealed, as the undersides and the engines are entirely hidden from view. Why isn't a car upside down or vertical, or parked overhead on a glass stand to see its undercarriage? Why aren't any of the hoods raised? We're expected to take their claim of Porsche's innovative design as gospel.

In the entire show, there is exactly one image of a designer at work, inspecting the wooden body buck used to form the Gmünd Coupe's aluminum panels. In 1948, when the picture was taken, the body of the car was handmade. Where's the wooden form around which they banged the aluminum into a fender? Where are the mallets they used? Brochure images and grainy family photographs just don't cut it.

Frankly, the sound is the best part of the exhibition. There's a little parlor where you sit beneath a speaker. A narrator names a Porsche model number and then you hear its engine start up or roar past. If you listen for a while, you can differentiate between the models, realizing the exhibition's subtitle in a way that none of the cars remotely invokes.

There are a few other things to like about this show. In a region where NASCAR is popular, Porsche By Design should attract a nontraditional audience to the museum, a benefit that's impossible to overstate. And if this show succeeds in its clearly commerical aim, it might help underwrite less popular, more substantial shows like the recent El Anatsui retrospective or the 0–60 show about time, or next year's Estampas de la raza/Prints for the People: The Romo Collection of Mexican-American and Latino artists.

But the best things in Porsche By Design turn out to be the memories of the visitors. I tagged along with a group of middle-aged men in business suits for whom each car was a rich storytelling prompt. One guy's mother owned a 914 when he was in high school, another guy waxed poetic about a convertible Mustang he drove up the Pacific Coast Highway, while a third man discussed his Matchbox version of one of the display models. The Porsches triggered vivid, emotional reminiscence in the men, a testament to the undeniable allure of fast, flashy cars.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Auto motives."

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