Embracing The Automobile As Art

The Museum of Modern Art opened its doors to cars with the 1951 exhibit Eight Automobiles. Since then, cars have increasingly become accepted as art. Vintage-car authority and journalist Ken Gross is furthering this cause by curating a series of auto-themed museum exhibits.

“People are no longer shocked to see cars in museums, on platforms, beautifully spotlit. They have a perfect right to be there,” says Gross.

Using his extensive connections in the automotive world — he’s a former executive director of the Petersen Automotive Museum and a longtime judge at Pebble Beach — Gross secures the loans of extraordinarily rare vehicles, such as the Delahaye Type 135M, and concept cars like the 2010 Porsche 918 Spyder. The exhibitions — Porsches, art deco classics, or dream cars — have appeared in a number of art museums.

Some locations present what Gross calls “an interesting mobility challenge.” He visits each site and creates a loading plan. The High Museum of Art in Atlanta is “most challenging” because cars must fit into a 229-inch-long elevator that’s parallel to the street. Some cars are too big. In 2010, Gross had to get permission to remove the front bumper from Clark Gable’s Duesenberg to make it fit. “It shortened the length by seven to eight inches, and by very carefully pushing the car we were able to get it onto the elevator.”

For art museums, the cars are a way to engage a wider audience. “Special exhibitions that the public has an affinity for provide an art experience that’s enjoyable and accessible,” says Dewey Blanton, spokesman for the American Alliance of Museums.

For car enthusiasts, the exhibits provide intimate access to very special vehicles. The focused nature of these exhibits provides an experience that is in some ways more edifying than a classic-car extravaganza such as a concours d’elegance.

“The cars look like Paris gowns on wheels. People would be gobsmacked by how beautiful these cars are. The Pebble Beach crowd aside, most people have never seen cars like this,” says Gross.

Porsche by Design
North Carolina Museum of Art

Through January 20, 2014
The often reviled 1989 Panamericana concept car joins Janis Joplin’s 356C psychedelic cabriolet and twenty other irresistible Porsches in Raleigh. The exhibit catalog also presents original essays by author and historian Karl Ludvigsen and photojournalist Pete Lyons, among others.