Contemporary art USA

Turning a museum into a vanity space

Private collection shows are an insult to scholarship and curators

One of the oddest things I’ve seen in a museum was the first paragraph of a wall text at the 2008 exhibition “Los Angelenos/Chicano Painters of LA: Selections from the Cheech Marin Collection” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It explained, in unusually honest terms, why the exhibition was on view at one of America’s major public art museums. It said that the collector’s celebrity (and resulting wealth), not the art, was the basis for the show. This explanation of the reason for the show was an unintentional, but specific, insult to the artists whose work was on view: “You’re only here because of your association with a Hollywood star.” The exhibition was an embarrassment.

Such private-collector-centric “fluff shows” have proliferated this year, particularly in New York, where the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum and New York University’s Grey Art Gallery have shown private collections. Most recently, the New Museum has announced its intention to create a series of such shows and has given it the bizarre title “The Imaginary Museum”. The New Museum’s initial “Imaginary Museum” show will be of the private collection of Dakis Joannou.

These shows are unethical, improper and raise questions about the museums’ adherence to guidelines the US government lays down for non-profit institutions. (It is important to note that I’m criticising only exhibitions of private collections, not exhibitions of works donated to museums by collectors.) I’m especially disappointed that the New Museum has planned such a poorly considered show and series. It has a unique history as a feminist-created, experiment-driven, alternative space. Its decision to exhibit private collections turns the museum from a kunsthalle into a vanity space.

There are two main problems with these exhibitions. First, and most importantly, they diminish the role of curators as independent scholars, historians and discerning, informed selectors in favour of the consumerist whims of the richest guy in the room.

Through scholarship and curatorial consideration, museums and their curators determine what work has value to a society, a value that is beyond the mere monetary. These kinds of shows do nothing but exhibit and pseudo-validate the spending habits and taste of influential collectors, indicating that someone’s access to an American Express Platinum Card is as meaningful as a curatorial staff’s expertise. Unfortunately, these exhibitions inadvertently reinforce the notion that art is trophy owned by the privileged few, rather than a means through which intellectuals engage communities and nations in a broader discourse.

I am not suggesting that wealthy individuals should not share their collections with the public. In many places, most notably in Miami, collectors have shown their art in spaces controlled by themselves or their family-controlled-and-funded foundations. This is an honourable thing. That is how private collectors should, if they choose, share their art with the public. If a museum director is asked to exhibit a private collection, that director should remind the collector that a museum is more than a trophy house, that the director has too much respect for the museum’s curators to tell them that they are superfluous, and they should point them toward the Miami model.

Second, these shows violate the spirit—and possibly the letter—of museums’ tax exemptions. The US Internal Revenue Code mandates that tax-exempt organisations must not operate for the benefit of private interests. Not only do these exhibitions promote individual collectors as celebrities, but institutional imprimatur can increase the value of the exhibited work of art and the collection as a whole. Non-profit museums are supposed to be where art is studied, examined and contextualised, not a mere pass-through price-booster between the collector’s living room and the auction house.

Defenders of these shows note that US museums have done them for most of the last century. This is true—to a point. In recent decades American museums have professionalised their core functions, including acquisitions, scholarship, conservation and more. Private-collector shows are a quaint relic from the era before curatorial and other scholarly functions were professionalised.

The New Museum and others—such as the National Gallery of Art—that have private-collection exhibitions on their calendars should cancel them. The Association of Art Museum Curators should speak forcefully against these exhibitions because they are an insult to its members. The Association of Art?Museum Directors should review the practice and should ban it.

The writer is a journalist, lecturer and author of the Modern Art Notes blog

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17 Dec 09
18:53 CET


I just wanted to know how an old 69 year old man like me could exhibit some of the ancient Hongshan Culture, Longshan Culture, Han and Ming Dynasty items I have collected over the years. I am not rich or wealthy. I make a little over minimum wage. But every day I can go to my "curiosity cabinet" where the priceless truly does mingle with the less than priceless. I was told by a boy at CVS that he would love to see the Hongshan jade in the photo he was holding. He said, "You are so lucky to have a piece of art that is over 4000 years old." I told him my collection was going to be appraised in New York in March. He said, "Let me know what they say." At that moment, I thought, what if I could exhibit my collection and explain the various periods of Chinese history represented. Maybe someone else like the boy and me would like to see jade carved into art centuries before we were all born. I just wanted to share a Poor Man's Exhibit, but haven't the faintest clue whether anyone would care.

26 Nov 09
1:15 CET


As is often the case, I think what's to be learned here is that broad, sweeping generalizations are not terribly true or useful. Yes, without patrons, artists and museums would be in deep trouble. On the other hand, as long as the majority of the power and influence remains in the hands of a very small elite, artists outside those spheres of influence are likely to remain invisible. Uncle Bob, I don't know how many curators you know personally, but here in Minneapolis we have some wonderful curators at the MIA--not at all as you describe. What do you think leads people to become art historians? It ain't glory and money, that's for sure.

24 Nov 09
15:9 CET


As an artist, I shudder at the thought of being "studied, examined and contextualised" by these people. Art dies in curator's hands - desexed, detoxified, beaten into submission of their favorite theory, washed clean of any residue of life, pinned to the wall next to a huge label, explaining the only correct way to perceive it. A collector loves and acquires art for its most important quality - that it is alive. I will take a collection based on emotional response rather than on scholarship and day.

18 Nov 09
18:4 CET


As long as an institution is being transparent, I don't see a problem with these kinds of exhibitions, provided the collection has merit and can be shown within an appropriate context (ie. that the exhibition would be compatible with a museum's mandate). There are many things I don't understand about this article - first, Green's suggestion why private collections are better displayed ghettoized into owner-operated foundations. Why is this more honourable? And since when is the display of art, public/private collection/exhibition or not, behoved to 'honour' in the first place? It's a strange and quaint notion. Also, I don't understand, in Green's eyes, what prevents curators of non-profit museums from studying, examining and contextualising works from private collections just as they would works from other sources.

18 Nov 09
15:39 CET


Collectors, there are different types of collectors. There is the "collector" who uses art to make themselves relevant and to elevate the social status. Their nearest cousin collects for "investment". What these two groups of "collectors" produce as a byproduct of their acquisitions are hollow and callow, their collections are often just a bunch trophies. These folks are a dime a dozen and they are rampant in our culture. Transparent and sleazy, they stain the art world with their winner take all mentalities. Not at all unlike the Wall St. crowd. They have museums in their back pockets. There is another type of collector, part scholar part hoarder part saint. This group goes about their work quietly amassing a slice of history, contextualizing art with a sense of duty to human creation. Often their collections resemble curiosity cabinets where the priceless and worthless mingle with a sense of love. We've lost our way if we can't tell the difference. Let's speak to that.

16 Nov 09
15:7 CET


Having worked with both public museums and private collections, they are more alike than you'd wish to think - the collection ultimately bears the stamp of whoever is collecting. I spent many years in the archives of a 100-year old public collection, and it was easy to see how, who and what was collected changed over the years as the directors and curators changed. They truly left their mark on the collection. As much as we argue for curatorial independence and objectivity, and must continue to strive for it, there is always a degree of subjectivity. You will always fight for what you are passionate about - and that comes across in the way we make decisions about and collect art too. And maybe not for every collection or curator, but in some degree there always is. Private collections and collectors play an important role in continuing patronage while government funding evaporates. Surely their idiosyncrasies are no worse than those of public institutions?

16 Nov 09
3:18 CET


It's also perhaps unethical that Jeff Koons is curating Dakis Joannou's collection at the New Museum because, according to the press release, Koons' work "forms the core of the collection."

15 Nov 09
17:53 CET


Indeed, it is nice to hear someone get steamy under the collar about art - a rare thing these days. I too have to disagree, however, with the sentiment. I feel the private collection as a curatorial model is as valid, and often as interesting, as any other - who is to say that we curators should be the primary arbiters of cultural or social value when it comes to art? The connections between works that can be formed by passionate and considered collectors can be as exciting and interesting (or boring and contrived) as those of any curator. Not forgetting also that the inclusion of an artist's work in any public museum collection also has a high level of prestige resulting (hopefully) in financial gain for the artist, and that there is a reverse increase in prestige for a public collection which contains work by certain artists. To try to claim for the museum and curator some kind of 'pure' space seems somewhat naive.

15 Nov 09
8:14 CET


Collectors are an important part of the art sector, as are artists, curators and other art historians and merchants. I believe that most or at least a lot of private collections are worth being seen. And, since we have not often the chance to see private collections on display we should rejoice when one is been organised. Collectors have expertise in order to run their collections and that should not be forgotten. I have my own collection and I would love to have it exhibited somewhere in a museum or elsewhere and I think many people would appreciate to see it. I don't see what the problem is. If fact, the problem is that the small collectors should be allowed as much as the rich ones to display their collections in a public space.

15 Nov 09
8:13 CET


I saw Cheech Marin's collection on display at the Weisman Museum in Minneapolis several years ago while I was in college. I do not recall if the text was the same as the text of the LA Exhibition, but I completely disagree with the opinion that the show's discription is an insult to the artists. Yes, it's true that artists receive much more exposure when connected with a celebrity or influential person. But perhaps the criteria for the success of a working artist is not strictly based on talent. Luck plays a part. And if you are lucky enough to turn the head of a "Hollywood Star," more power to you.

15 Nov 09
8:13 CET


To further engage with the complex nature of giving, take a look at the 256-page book that was just launched this past Thursday (at the New Museum) called "The World of Giving," edited by Jeffrey Inaba and the Columbia Laboratory for Architectural Broadcasting (C-Lab), published by Lars Mueller publishers, initiated and developed in conversation with the New Museum over the past two years. Here's some more info about it: The book investigates complex issues like this one and many more, and I would recommend, if anyone is really passionate about the topic, to check it out. Full disclosure: I worked at C-Lab with many others on this book, and I won't get any money from it's sale. But I know the content intimately and wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone with an interest in these issues, it's a very interesting book.

15 Nov 09
8:12 CET


Get off your altmodisch high horse. Commodification is very much a part of the art and public redefinition of art -- no better way to see this than through the derivatives of private collectors. If you couple this with the tremendous financial pressures on museums currently, voila!

15 Nov 09
8:12 CET


To continue the thought that the issue is certainly not black or white, I would like to suggest to look at the article’s title “Turning a museum into a vanity space” against a broader notion: “Art is a vanity space for the rich”. Most important public art museums in Europe had been originally private/royal collections, and throughout the centuries most artwork had been commissioned by private patrons, to start with. I entirely agree with Mr Green that some private collections display a bad taste and superficial values, and they are an insult not only to scholarship but indeed to the public. However, the issue to debate is the curatorial corruption. If it is normal for the artists to look for private collectors to secure continuous production, curators turning there for employment or power might potentially present a negative influence on culture. Mechanisms of curatorial independence is the Big Issue here.

14 Nov 09
6:4 CET


While I appreciate your position is your position, I wonder, have you spoken to any of the artists who have works in large-scale private collections, to ask them how they feel about their work being contextualised in this manner? Collectors such as Joannou are more than just collectors, they are patrons and more often than not engage with artists' works in incredible depth over vast periods of time. This means ongoing patronage to those artists, which is essential to the production of more work. This is a privileged position for these artists. Of course the down side is that often artists' works disappear into private collections because public collections have limited acquisitions, cannot raise necessary funds, etc & often miss out on key works. With museum/private collection partnerships the artists' works are able to be on public display and the museums can access numerous works by each artist enabling in depth presentations view. This issue is certainly not black or white.

14 Nov 09
2:11 CET


My god what a lot of self-rightous hot air. "How dare they make visible some small portion of how this business [which is what it is] works?! Let us go back to pretending art is about truth, beauty, public subsidies, and, especially, my extremely good taste-- the one thing I have that the rich, by virtue of being rich, do not and cannot have!" Puh-lease.

14 Nov 09
1:35 CET


I think Sarah, Seattle, summed it up well: this is a gray area. One point to add, an issue that hasn't been adequately addressed in these kind of conversations, is that of institutions running out of space and money to both maintain existing collections and to expand collections. In New Zealand, institutions go through occasional periods of severe belt tightening, not to mention occasional instances of irresponsible governance. This can make the private collector actually very important to society, regardless of wealth, status, and other good or bad motives. Something to think about anyway...

13 Nov 09
23:57 CET


I don't think it has ever been true that "art is a means through which intellectuals engage communities and nations in a broader discourse." All the greatest Western art was created for rich private patrons and public (and religious) use. There is no conflict between a museum show and independent critical opinion, and Tyler's blogs themselves prove that. I am entirely in favor of showing as much art as possible, whoever owns it. If Tyler's principles were followed, there would be (for example) no Lehman Wing at the Met and probably no Annenberg Collecton or Gelman Collection either. Would we be better off without them? Tyler's ideal must be the Japanese collectors who keep their Van Goghs in a bank vault. That's very pure and very dead.

13 Nov 09
17:14 CET


Mr. Green bases his opinion on a grandiose presumption, that only “…museums and their curators (should) determine what work has value to a society.” I hadn’t heard that MFA graduates were universally prescient. Sounds like fun. Sign up for museum work, get a nice business card and a big bucket of socio-political fairy dust. Sprinkle it on the works that you decide have “value to a society,” and then, according to the author, become an “intellectual” qualified to “…engage communities and nations in a broader discourse.” A discourse, one presumes, on issues chosen by you-know-who. I studied fine arts for four years at the Fogg Museum at Harvard, a severe and rigorous place. I am certain that if anyone there, student or professor, had the presumption to describe themselves as an “intellectual” qualified to decide what artworks should properly be “valued” by society, they would have found themselves the subject of a torrent of well-deserved ridicule.

13 Nov 09
17:14 CET


I wonder why we are not able to work together... to get progress together... Spanish Museums have a great and ancient Culture, History, Collections... We have good and well prepared curators... but we need collectors who support the price that allow us to take our treasures to the New York Museums...last June I enjoyed the new "American Wing" but I have to tell you that now I'm so proud to see again our Andalusian dish (XIth -XIIIth century) in the Museum of Jaen...less glamour but better Objects...

13 Nov 09
14:5 CET


Mr. Tyler forgot, or doesn't know, that collectors are responsible for not only founding museums, but contributing money and art to museums over the years. Smart curators work with and encourage active involvement with collectors without compromising their curatorial skills and talents.

13 Nov 09
13:52 CET


Rip off! So many young artist need a chance to show and they show a so-so artist, just because of money. Oh and the taxpayers pay for it too, while the rich collector gets richer.

13 Nov 09
13:51 CET


The Broad contemporary art wing LACMA is far better than anything the SFMOMA, to name one example, has had in years. I hear what you are saying, but as an artist/musician who just wants to see great art, if the collection is good and the show is well installed that is all that matters. The curators of many US museums are insulting enough to themselves and their public. I'd much rather see a carefully selected collection of recent work by great artists like the Broad collection or the Fisher collection here than most of the curatorial decisions the Bay Area museums (the museums I am able to watch the closest) make.

12 Nov 09
19:22 CET


Full disclosure: I work for one of the museums criticized by Mr. Green. And that is the point of my post: as long as museums are fully transparent about what they are doing, I think pretty much anything goes. I am interested to see what is in the Joannou collection, and fascinated that one of "his" artists (Jeff Koons) is curating the show. I will not mistake the exhibition for scholarship, because I know where it comes from and who has something to gain. Hopefully, the New Museum will make that point very clear in the introduction to the exhibition - then, all visitors will have the same knowledge I have regarding potential conflicts of interest. Think of it like a book or an article written by a central participant in the story - the reader knows, and can adjust for, the writer's incentive to embellish his/her role.

12 Nov 09
14:2 CET


I enjoyed Tyler's hardliner position very much. I've personally had enough of the navel-lint-like, metaphysical pc talk so commonplace in the art world. Still, most great contemporary art disappears in private storage spaces, which is great for the collector and sad for the public. And museums might not be in the best position to cover contemporary art from their own storage. So: Bring on the shows curated by professional curators from private collections! Everybody should do them! Let's not forget that collectors are not all super-wealthy celebrity bigwigs with a craving for the spot light, even if it's this combination that makes the shows scorched by Tyler work so well: Because the public and the media (even most art publications) can relate to art much better when it's connected to celebrities and money. The latter simply require less thinking. Art journalists should stop writing about sales prices and auction reports, it's an insult to both the artist and the collector.

11 Nov 09
23:22 CET


This argument doesn't take into account the difference between collector-generated and curator-generated shows of private collections. Not does it address the shows drawn from private collections that focus on artists rather than collectors. While it is a reasoned, passionate argument, at its core it doesn't acknowledge any gray areas in a field riddled with them.

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