Perfume is big business. And now the recently announced Center of Olfactory Art, part of the New York Museum of Arts and Design, is to celebrate the smell of perfume not as something you splash on ahead of a night out, but rather as an art form in its own right. The centre's first exhibition, The Art of Scent, 1889-2011, will examine some of the world's best-known perfume creators through ten well-known scents.
Not everyone is convinced. Writing in the The Wall Street Journal, Pia Catton commented: "In the US fragrance is so closely connected to fashion brands, celebrity and duty-free shopping, that the only artistic element seems to be the photography of the ad campaign..."
It's true that these days people are more likely to recognise a celebrity's name than a "nose" (as those who create a fragrance are called). Nevertheless, the centre's backers are convinced that there is a growing interest not just in how perfume is manufactured, but also in what makes each scent unique.
"Olfactory art is a field that has been overlooked historically," says Holly Hotchner, the Museum of Arts and Design's director. "Its position today among art historians, museum curators and even the general public is essentially equivalent to that of photography 30 years ago – virtually unrecognised as an art form in its own right."
The new centre intends to rectify that by taking scent very seriously indeed. There are plans for an artist in residence programme in addition to lectures, workshops and retrospectives on the work of well-known noses such as Jean-Claude Ellena, in-house perfumer for Hermès, while Chandler Burr, the respected former perfume critic of The New York Times, will be the centre's first curator of olfactory art.
Burr, who has written a number of well-received books on aspects of the perfume industry, will oversee the Art of Scent exhibition, which he intends to be very different from the standard collection of bottle-designs and fancy packaging. Instead, visitors will walk along a six-foot-wide path and experience each of the ten chosen fragrances as they are released from an atomising machine. He's confident that the new museum will be a success. "What we're going to do... is place scent directly in the mainstream of art history and demonstrate that it is the equal of paintings, sculpture, architecture and all other artistic media," he says.
The Art of Scent, 1889-2011, will open in November (www.madmuseum.org)