Madeleine Albright's Pin Collection Doesn't Belong at Phoenix Art Museum

Did I miss something? Did the Phoenix Art Museum recently change its name to the Phoenix Fashion Institute?

That's not an unreasonable assumption, given that PAM is currently running two fashion accessory-related exhibitions, "The Cape" and "Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection." Despite the museum's hype that the cape is "[s]teeped in romantic appeal" and "a constant in fashion history over time and across cultures," PAM's cape show is relatively snoozy, but the perfect sluice through which to funnel museum-goers into the Madeleine Albright pin collection exhibition. As we all know, a brooch is the perfect complement to your average cape, which is a "... dashing and practical garment."

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"Read My Pins," a traveling exhibition curated by David Revere McFadden, chief curator for New York City's Museum of Arts and Design, features more than 200 pins, "each selected by Secretary Albright," we are told, "to communicate a message or a mood during and after her diplomatic tenure." It was underwritten by Bren Simon, the second wife of now-deceased shopping mall billionaire Mel Simon (who also co-owned the Indiana Pacers with his brother). After his death in 2009, Ms. Simon, according to Forbes, engaged in a nasty, two-year-long legal battle with her step-children over his formidable estate.

The beautifully illustrated book accompanying the show, written by Albright with the assistance of former State Department Chief of Staff Elaine Shocas and jewelry historian Vivienne Becker, was supported in large part by St. John Knits and is far more interesting than the actual exhibition, since it lays out the historical backdrops against which Albright's pins were acquired and displayed in diplomatic situations.

I just wonder how many, in the torrential streams of viewers oogling PAM's display cases bearing the American version of the crown jewels, actually know who Madeleine Albright is -- other than someone who owns a lot of jewelry. This is not a flip question, given the number of people who get their news reports solely from The Colbert Report and Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. As repeated research studies and surveys have shown, most Americans are politically and culturally ignorant -- and apparently take a perverse pride in being so.

For those who have not or downright refuse to read the wall texts appearing in the exhibition, Madeleine Albright happens to have been the first female Secretary of State, serving under President Bill Clinton from 1997 to 2001, and the US ambassador to the United Nations from 1993 to 1997. Literally born into diplomacy as the daughter of the Czechoslovakian ambassador to Yugoslavia in the years preceding World War II, her family fled Europe first to London, then to Denver, Colorado to escape the horrors of war. According to Jaweed Kaleem of the Huffington Post, Albright, who was raised Catholic, discovered at the age of 59 that her parents were Jewish and that a dozen of her relatives died in the Holocaust, a family secret never shared with her. Since her tenure as Secretary of State, she's been a university professor, an active Democratic campaigner, the author of three books, and an international business consultant. Not to mention a passionate collector of pins.

Without a doubt, the collection does contain some antique and vintage museum-quality pieces worthy of the master jeweler's art. Pins of precious metals, diamonds, pearls and other gemstones sit side by side with costume jewelry made of base metals and rhinestones, some on a par with their real counterparts. The point that Albright is ecumenical in her collecting comes through loud and clear, as we see pins by unknown artists, as well as red carpet offerings by Cartier, Tiffany & Company, and Van Cleef & Arpels next to Macy's staples like Carolee, Monet, and Kenneth Jay Lane and highly collectible costume jewelry from Hollywood's glory days by Ciner, Josef of Hollywood, and Trifari. Albright even has several reproductions of museum collection pieces put out by the Metropolitan Museum of Art thrown in for good measure.

What gets lost in the blinding bling of the show, which is too often ridiculously segmented into categories like butterflies, flags, spiders, sea life, leaves and mushrooms, and fruits and veggies, is the fact that all of this swag relates to semiotics, a philosophical theory of the functions of signs and symbols of which Albright was obviously very aware. Madame Secretary often chose a particular bauble as an accessory to signal her intentions, her feelings or her diplomatic stance. Too little of "Read My Pins" actually makes that point, in favor of quantity and pins bordering on cheesy. The show's at its best when individual pieces are highlighted by an actual back story, like one involving Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whose poet-in-residence wrote a verse in which he calls Albright "an unparalleled serpent." Madame Secretary responded by wearing a gold-and-diamond snake pin during negotiations with Iraqi diplomats.

Don't get me wrong. I adore jewelry of any kind. I make it; I wear it and I collect it. However, I'm just hesitant about it being displayed under the rubric of fine art, to which the Phoenix Art Museum is allegedly dedicated. Though Albright's collection of antique, vintage and contemporary pins might be considered historically significant, its rightful place is in an institution devoted to decorative arts and design, or maybe the Smithsonian Institute, an archival repository of all types of Americana, rather than in a museum that's supposed to showcase only the best in international fine art.

"Read My Pins" is on view at Phoenix Art Museum through Sunday, April 20. Admission for adults is $15.

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Kathleen Vanesian