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MFA asks early birds to pay $200 to see ‘Clock’

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / August 16, 2011

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Want to be among the first at the Museum of Fine Arts next month when it unveils the latest art world phenomenon?

Get your checkbook ready.

The MFA is charging $200 for the chance to view the first complete Boston presentation by artist Christian Marclay of “The Clock,’’ a 24-hour film installation made up of hundreds of movie and television clips with references synched to real time. The work, which has generated critical acclaim and enthusiastic crowds at other locations, will be presented during the Sept. 17 opening of the museum’s Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art.

The museum explains that the fee helps pay for the overnight party marking the event, and that ticket holders will get a chance to see other works in the new wing and enjoy food and drinks. But critics say the cost makes the opening night of “The Clock’’ too expensive for many art lovers to experience.

“Revolting,’’ said Ilona Anderson, an artist and the director of the Kingston Gallery and an assistant professor at The New England School of Art & Design at Suffolk University. “If they want to cultivate an audience for contemporary art, they need to make it available. It shouldn’t be exclusive.’’

On opening night, visitors paying $200 will be allowed in the museum at 7 p.m., for the start of the 24-hour “Clock’’ cycle. As the night runs on, the MFA’s admission fee shrinks: It costs $100 to get in at 11 p.m., $50 at 3 a.m., and at 7 a.m., visitors enter for free as part of a community day. In addition, the MFA says that “The Clock’’ will be screening for a month afterward, available to those who pay the museum’s standard, $22 admission fee - though, of course, visitors will only see a portion of the full 24-hour experience.

The MFA says that it will organize another 24-hour screening before the end of the year - this one without the $200 price tag - but hasn’t set a date yet.

The issue, for critics of the unveiling plan, is that people eager to see “The Clock’’ have to pay or wait. The museum has had other big, opening parties, and it has even stayed open all night for a popular show. But never before has the unveiling of such a high-profile artwork been linked to a big ticket event such as the Linde Family Wing opening.

“To me, this demonstrates a larger institutional conflict between what a lot of contemporary art is and what a major institution like the MFA is,’’ said Kristina Wilson, an art history professor at Clark University.

If she had her way, “The Clock’’ would go on display for free or for the MFA’s standard admission fee. “Those would seem the best ways to celebrate the contemporary art wing,’’ she said. “This is not the wisest choice for the museum.’’

The MFA announced the purchase of “The Clock’’ in May after the piece had been displayed in galleries in New York and London. During those showings, admirers waited outside, sometimes in the cold, for a chance to watch sections of the film. Many returned regularly because no section of “The Clock’’ repeats over that 24-hour run.

Not long after the MFA and the National Gallery of Canada announced they would share the more than $500,000 purchase price of one edition of Marclay’s piece, “The Clock’’ won the prestigious Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale.

For the MFA, the acquisition offers a chance to show that the museum, long considered uninterested in contemporary art, is serious about collecting it.

Jen Mergel, the MFA’s senior curator of contemporary art, said that the museum has actually worked hard to keep costs down for the opening of the Linde Family Wing.

“It’s going to be awesome,’’ she said of the party being organized by high-end event planner Bryan Rafanelli, whose long list of previous celebrations includes Chelsea Clinton’s 2010 wedding.

For $200, visitors will get access to museum galleries, be able to watch Irish performance artist Amanda Coogan, and see other works from artists Faith Johnson and Ann Carlson. There will be live music, food, and specialty cocktails.

“It is decidedly not a gala for $2,000 a ticket,’’ said Mergel. “Just to keep the museum open for 24 hours, it’s quite reasonable.’’

She noted that the second half of Marclay’s film can be seen for free starting at 7 a.m.

“If somebody were saying, ‘I don’t think I can afford that ticket price,’ that’s why we have 12 hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.,’’ she said.

Marclay, a Massachusetts College of Art graduate who lives in New York and London, worked for two years on the film, stitching together enough clips featuring clocks, watches, sundials, and other timepieces to create a 24-hour video clock. As part of the sale to the MFA, Marclay requires that the piece only be shown in real time, meaning that if you want to see the 1 a.m. section of “The Clock,’’ you need to be in the museum gallery at 1 a.m.

That means that unless overnight screenings were organized, the section of the film that runs from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. - when the museum is normally closed - could never have been seen in Boston.

These requirements have inspired 24-hour showings at galleries and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which also purchased the piece. The museum premiered “The Clock’’ this year for free for 24 hours in its Bing Theater and followed with a second, around-the-clock showing. But the screenings did not include a party and events surrounding the opening of a new wing as at the MFA.

Eliot J. Nerenberg, an attorney in Hartford, saw sections of “The Clock’’ in New York last winter at Paula Cooper Gallery, where lines often stretched around the block. He loved it enough to go once at 2 in the morning. When he heard the MFA was showing “The Clock,’’ Nerenberg contemplated heading to Boston. Then, he was told of the price for opening night.

“I can understand charging 10 or 15 dollars as you might to a movie,’’ he said. “But $200? That’s a downer. I can afford it, but it rubs me the wrong way.’’

Critics of the MFA’s unveiling plan did not seem moved by the chance to see “The Clock’’ for free starting at 7 a.m. or the museum’s plan to schedule additional, around-the-clock screenings.

“Treating it as a gala opener and disrespecting its true, 24-hour purpose really degrades the work,’’ said Ashley Lee, a recent Wellesley College graduate who majored in art history and writes about museum admissions fees on The Next Great Generation, an online magazine.

“It makes it into a party favor rather than showing it to the broadest possible swath of people.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com