SFMOMA Misses the Moment on “The Clock”

by Randy Shaw on May 29, 2013

Christian Marclay’s The Clock lives up to its billing and more. It is that rare work of art that qualifies as “unique,” and people have been flocking to SFMOMA to see it. But SFMOMA has done the public a great disservice. Although the film’s identity is based on its minute by minute, 24 hour connection between time and film, SFMOMA limited viewing of over half of the film to only one day per week (the film showed from 10am-6pm five days a week, until 8:45 pm on Thursdays, and the thirteen hour period from 8:45pm-10am was only offered on Saturday nights through Sunday morning). The result of this artificially limited access: two to three hour waits that deterred thousands from seeing the film’s evening footage. Having proved its fundraising prowess by raising $610 million dollars for its new facility, SFMOMA easily could have provided the additional staffing necessary to give Marclay’s work the broader access it deserved.

I saw over five hours of The Clock, and, like many others, would have viewed the evening sessions had SFMOMA made them more widely available. But SFMOMA limited access to over half of Marclay’s work to one day a week, effectively denying much of the public the opportunity to view most of this signature work.

The Clock ends on June 2, coinciding with SFMOMA’s nearly three year closure for building its new facility. If you have yet to see it, check twitter for current wait times, https://twitter.com/theclocksfmoma. If you want to know why so many are mesmerized by Marclay’s work, Daniel Zalewski’s March 12, 2012 New Yorker article is a good place to start.

Missing the Midnight Hour

The Clock is comprised of film clips at typically twenty second intervals that coincide with the actual time of viewing. Its structure has led some to compare it to an elaborate collage. Marclay noted in the New Yorker that it was more difficult finding movies for some time periods than others. But film fans know that there is an abundance of movies whose suspense builds in the pre-midnight hours and then climax as the clock strikes 12:00 AM.

That’s why it is so unfortunate that most viewers never got the chance to see these latter films due to SFMOMA’s limited schedule. SFMOMA had to realize there would be great public demand to see the 9pm-midnite segment, if not from the show’s outset than from the crowds that kept the 81-seat theater filled. I didn’t check twitter for the wait times early in the show’s run, but the lines have been long enough for weeks to expand staff to address any unforeseen demand.

If SFMOMA did not want to offer regular 24-hour showings it could at least shown the film until 12:30 am multiple nights each week. That would have expanded viewership for the hours leading to midnight and likely reduced crowds at all times.

The “Cost” of Art

I realize that the hundreds of millions of dollars raised for the new SFMOMA is a separate pot of money from funds used to pay staff and security for museum operations. But a museum that has been able to raise such outstanding sums for a new facility surely has the financial capacity to provide adequate public access to its popular exhibitions, including The Clock.

In fact, had SFMOMA lacked the money to hire staffing for regular extended viewing, it could have quickly raised the funds through a separate campaign. In a city that raised millions in private donations to light the Bay Bridge, funding expanded viewing of The Clock would have been easy.

But SFMOMA did not even make such a public appeal for funds.

Neither NYMOMA nor LACMA offered expanded evening hours for The Clock beyond that offered by SFMOMA, so there was no precedent for what SFMOMA should have done. Yet San Francisco has never found itself constricted by New York City or Los Angeles precedents, and once SFMOMA saw the huge audience for showings, it needed to serve its public.

How often do people wait two or three hours to gain access to art? The Clock brought an excitement level to SFMOMA that reminded me of the scene at Marina Abramović’s legendary 2010 “The Artist is Present” NYMOMA show—where people stood for hours to confront the artist.

SFMOMA had a rare opportunity to make a powerful statement about its commitment to its members and visitors, but missed its moment. If you have not seen The Clock and still hope to do so, get in line at your earliest opportunity and stay in the theater as long as you can.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and member of SFMOMA.

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