Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Let there be art....

My favorite artist is here for a month-long visit and last night, after he returned from a lecture at SVA, we got to talking about the New Museum controversy. For those with short memories, the museum is presenting a show featuring works from the private collection of one of its trustees, including work by an artist who also happens to be curating the show at the museum. Prima facie, conflict of interest written all over this decision.

The art world has been buzzing about this one for nearly two months, and I've been following the art blogosphere with mild interest in the matter, more as a case about non-profit business ethics than about art for art's sake.

The curatorial conflict of interest is cut and dry, from my perspective (and J's). If you value the museum as an arbiter of quality and accomplishment in the art world, you can't have an artist curating his own work into a show he is overseeing.

Whether it's ethical for wealthy donors to showcase their collections at museums of which they are major benefactors is not so clear cut. Many argue that a museum show enhances the market value of work displayed in the show, so that trustees with significant collections essentially get a financial ROI from their generosity. J explained that one way around this is for trustee/collectors to pledge that none of the featured work be put up for sale for a period of, say, two years, to smooth out the valuation impact and avoid at least the appearance of an immediate and direct conflict of interest.

I asked, in response, whether, for example, it would be ethical under those practices, for a show to include, say, four of six works in a series by a particular artist, freeing the trustee to sell the other two at auction. Well, yes, that could be an issue but there are ways to deal with that, too. Long discussion....also involving the question of whether collectors loan or donate portions of their displayed works to the museum's permanent collection after a show, e.g. the hit and run tactics of Eli Broad in L.A. as an example of suspect benefactor behavior.

The greater concern from my POV is whether museums soil their reputations as repositories of great art and would-be guardians of longer-range art 'quality' (however you define that) by opening the gates to wealthy donors whose dollars might unduly distort the mission. I know, these are all highly charged and loaded words and the topic of 'quality' itself can be debated forever----one reason the blogosphere still buzzes. Yet, doesn't the 'reasonable person' standard apply in some measure to this challenge?

Also, let's face it, there is no purity at the loftiest levels in the museum world. It is--and has to be--about money as well as art, or there would be no museums. Can we expect wealthy patrons to be drawn to art museum boards if they are not already passionate collectors? And can the museum ex-out the possibility of showing these works just because a collector is also a benefactor? Board of trustees meetings would be very lonely affairs under those rules, wouldn't they?

Besides enjoying the chat with J, I am grateful that there are so many who care so passionately about issues like this. The mark of a great city.

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