MIA's 'Sports Show' documents interdependence of media and sports

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It's rare when sports and art merge, but the Minneapolis Institute of Arts' "The Sports Show" is the first exhibition from a major art museum to trace the rise of a 'global sports culture."

At the MIA, Curator David Little walks up to a panoramic turn-of-the-century photo near the beginning of the Sports Show. It's a sweeping sepia-toned shot of an opening day baseball game between Washington and Boston.

Thousands of men are in the stands and line the outfield. They're dressed formally, some with top hats or bowlers, and their eyes are fixed on the field.

"First of all, this is around 1900, and look at the fans," Little said. "What are your thoughts on what the audience looks like?"

Ben Garvin, a photographer with the St. Paul Pioneer Press, said, "Well, interesting to me is that it's just about the sport and people.

"And there's not a lot of structure beyond that. You walk to an event like this now, I don't want to be such a negative fellow, but there's so much more corporatization to the event. And here, it's just an event. And it feels like they're just here to enjoy something and there's a purity to a photo like this."

One of the overarching themes of "The Sports Show" is how the sports industry and media became fused and interdependent through the power of the photograph and later, video. More than 100 images are exhibited, and capture numerous athletic subjects: heroes like Muhammed Ali, Wayne Gretsky and Babe Ruth; everyday competitors, thrill of victory, agony of defeat moments; and revealing glimpses behind the scenes.

Little incorporated works by unknown photographers and signature artists such as Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon, as well as newspaper photography and video.

"And what I wanted to try to do in having all those different media by different artists is to show how sports is completely embedded in culture," he said.

The exhibition also focuses on the changing dynamic between sports fans and the competition. In early sports photos, fans are passive bystanders, separated from the action.

"And then as you move throughout the history the camera, the angles become multiple and they become closer and closer to the field and to the field of action," Little said. "And along with that, the audience changes. They become participant observers."

Opening Day 1900
This panoramic shot was taken around 1900 of an opening day baseball game between Washington and Boston. "The Sport Show" examines how photographic images and later video propelled the rise of a global sports culture.
Courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Little considers himself an avid sports fan. He even played college basketball for a small liberal arts school. That's pretty unusual for an art curator and probably made him even more aware of an institutional disinterest in sports among museums.

"Even though sports is incredibly popular within the newspaper, the media world. Within the art world it hasn't really been a subject," Little said.

"The Sports Show" contains several larger installations which amplify the spectacle of sports, and how they reflect the politics and societal attitudes of the day. The work "The Saints" juxtaposes a telecast of the 1966 World Cup final between Germany and Great Britain, with a theater full of wildly cheering Filipino soccer fans watching the same broadcast.

Sometimes the simplest photojournalistic images have the most resonance. Little points to a photograph of runner Roger Bannister as he broke the four-minute mile barrier.

"And that story really transcends that day, that a human being could run that fast," Little said. "There are photojournalistic pictures that have that particular power and those were the images that were included here," he said.

Garvin questions Little about the audience at the museum, and if the exhibit has created any new fans.

"I would say, anecdotally, we have a new audience, Little says. "I've seen a lot of teenagers. I've seen a lot of men who typically aren't here and just from talking with our docents, they're saying there are husbands who want to come to the museum and they haven't been here in years."

But Little was not intending to target any particular demographic with "The Sports Show." He wanted to explore what he felt was a compelling subject that's been overlooked, partly, he admits, because of a prejudice in the art field.

"My hope is that art fans will come in and say, 'Oh, my God, I never thought about the fact that Cartier Bresson, and Avedon, and Diane Arbus, and Douglas Gordon have used sports as a subject to explore these really complicated issues of politics, of portraiture, etc,' and on the other hand that sports fans will come in and understand their own expertise," Little said.

It's the first exhibition he has worked on where visitors actually know more about some of the pieces than he does, Little said.

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