Every year around this time March Madness, the annual college basketball tournament involving 68 teams, sweeps the nation. In workplaces all over America, the office betting pool is organized and people gather around the actual or virtual water coolers and compare how they did in their brackets.
I’ve noticed an unsurprising lack of interest in this over-commercialized, hyperbolic expression of American sports here at the Phillips, bastion of high culture that we are. But despite my nerdy love of art history and long time as a museum professional, I am still a huge college basketball fan. In fact my first year on the job here, I won the great respect of our former director, deputy director, and CFO (all men) by winning the college basketball pool organized by the CFO. After the CFO left the museum, it fell to me to organize the college basketball betting pool.
A few years ago, I thought of a way to make the event slightly more interesting to those who had little or no interest in March Madness. What if I associated each team participating in the tournament with artists prominent in the museum’s collection? It could be ART MADNESS. Those who did not know a Duke Blue Devil from a North Carolina Tar Heel might be able to see that if this year’s #1 seed Kentucky was associated with Cézanne, they could defeat a #16 team paired with Arthur B. Davies. The higher seeds would be paired with the most prominent artists, for example van Gogh, Klee, and Picasso are #1 seeds.
There were other fun possibilities. I could pair Georgia O’Keeffe with New Mexico and William Christenberry with Alabama. Some teams were paired with artists with whom I could not imagine the relationship–what does Notre Dame have to do with Delacroix or Xavier with Ingres (aside from Catholicism)? The teams play one another in the first round, and the two artists were long time rivals. And of course, Alfred Stieglitz was paired with a team slated to take on Georgia O’Keeffe/New Mexico.
Naturally, I made mistakes. I left Edward Hopper out of the first version of ART MADNESS and did not make a place for Thomas Eakins in the final version. One participant noted that it seems unfair to give Marjorie Phillips (our founder’s wife and an accomplished painter) only a 16th seed. Not to mention that I made Renoir a #2 seed because his style of painting seems to me a perfect match for Duke. As arguable as they may be, all of my choices are based on some criteria.
Did ART MADNESS increase participation by Phillips staff, you ask? Well this year’s pool has 22 participants. Not much maybe, but that’s the largest number in my eight years at the museum. Although as the person who keeps track of the brackets, I must admit that everyone who participated picked teams not artists, and all the selections are plausible. No one seems to have made any arbitrary or artist-based selections. Hmm . . . maybe people at the museum are more interested in college basketball than I thought?