Art market

Institutions are increasingly likely to loan works of art to the most powerful private galleries

Public art for private gain?


This past autumn season in New York City one could admire numerous works of art from major institutions without setting foot inside a museum. Instead, a 1930 Picasso bather from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), a towering Giacometti from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a milky white and brown Barnett Newman zip painting from London’s Tate were all on display in private Manhattan galleries. While institutions have lent to dealers in the past—Wildenstein’s and Knoedler’s blockbuster museum-stocked shows pre-date World War II—the (now deflating) art market boom of recent years has enabled more private galleries to mount the sort of shows normally seen only in museums.

Haunch of Venison, owned by Christie’s auction house, opened its new Manhattan gallery in September with “Abstract Expressionism—A World Elsewhere”, containing loans from no fewer than 22 museums, including Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. The gallery was transparent about using the show to identify itself as a major player. “This is the quality we aspire to,” says international managing director Robert Fitzpatrick, a former director of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. He admits he encountered “some reticence” among potential lenders, which was apparently allayed when he told them “nothing would be for sale”.

Acquavella’s “Picasso’s Marie-Thérèse” was 14 months in the planning and included six loans from museums including MoMA, Basel’s Fondation Beyeler and the Guggenheim, as well as works from private collectors. The gallery said none of the art was for sale.

That isn’t always the rule, however. Last month, Gagosian opened “Isabel and Other Intimate Strangers: Portraits by Giacometti and Bacon”, which included 16 works for sale among loans from MoMA, the Met, the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at University of East Anglia in Norwich, and the Baltimore Museum of Art, among others. A New York Times critic praised the show as being of “museum-quality”.

“These institutions know Gagosian, and understand we are a commercial gallery,” says Andrea Crane, who heads the gallery’s modern art department. “We aren’t a museum, but the quality is enormously high.”

The gallery reports one sale from the exhibition—a Giacometti bronze—although it declined to identify the work or price. However, Annette debout, conceived in 1954 and cast in 1982 from an edition of six, is for sale in the region of $1.8m. It is from the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, represented by Gagosian.

The degree to which rules have shifted was illustrated earlier this year when New York’s Helly Nahmad Gallery hung works on loan from museums at the Art Basel art fair. The show of dramatically lit Miró masonite paintings included works owned by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Spain’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and the Fundacio Joan Miró. “These old boundaries about museums, not-for-profits, art fairs—it’s not about that any more,” says Helly Nahmad. “You can’t put the market into a straight jacket.”

Museum officials acknowledge the shift. “The world of commerce and the world of not-for-profit aren’t as clearly demarcated today as 30 years ago,” says Michael Conforti, director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute at Williamstown, Massachusetts, and head of the Association of Art Museum Directors.

Preferential treatment

Museums struggling for funds benefit from these alliances, although both sides maintain there is no outright fee for a loan. Galleries cover costs such as shipping, handling and insurance, perhaps even a courier to travel with the artwork and be present during its installation. What the museums gain is access to a web of contacts and possible loans for their own exhibitions in the future.

Acquavella director Michael Findlay explains: “It involves relationships. On a very practical level, museums would have to feel the person they were lending to had loaned to them, or could loan to them, or could facilitate loans to them from clients, or locate paintings.”

Museum directors say gallery loans must satisfy safety and conservation requirements, but they don’t mention preferential treatment reserved for galleries with strong inventories of art and rosters of artists, contacts and connections. The best-established galleries seem to enjoy the most success in landing loans. Guy Wildenstein admits: “We have had a pretty good rate of acceptance from museums—we know them.” His New York gallery has borrowed from the Louvre, MoMA and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others.

Museums aren’t naïve about the quid-pro-quo nature of these requests. Helly Nahmad says his art-dealing family, known to possess stockpiled artworks in a Swiss warehouse, fields about “a hundred” requests a year for loans. Acquavella is contacted by museum curators every week about locating works for a show. In the contemporary sphere, Gagosian represents many of the most important artists, so museums aspiring to mount shows featuring them are encouraged to play ball.

By contrast, Robilant + Voena, a ten-year-old London-based partnership, had a tough time assembling its show “Vanvitelli”, which runs to 19 December (p58), although it did manage to secure loans from museums such as Compton Verney in Warwickshire. Edmondo di Robilant says it was easier to secure loans from institutions when he worked for Colnaghi, established in 1760. “They don’t necessarily know who we are,” he admits.

Dealers maintain that some of the divisions between trade and institution have always been artificial. “The majority of things in major museums have a dealer’s name attached,” says Mr Findlay, referring to the ownership histories listed for works. “The dealer is often the discoverer, the champion of the object.”

Charles Saumarez Smith, chief executive of London’s Royal Academy of Arts, agrees: “We get a lot of help from art dealers—we are in different ways in the same business.” But he remembers very different times in the 1980s, when he worked at the V&A. “We weren’t allowed to meet dealers,” he says. “You didn’t want to be contaminated.” In those days, says Julian Treuherz, who retired last year as keeper of art galleries for the National Museums of Liverpool, “museums were dominated by a sort of connoisseur aristocracy, and they didn’t like to think about any sort of commercial association.”

There are still those who insist that the boundaries existed for good reasons: that art loaned from institutions can serve to boost the value of privately owned work. Françoise Cachin, who retired as director of the French national museums in 2001, is one. “If I was a museum director now, and people asked me for loans for galleries, I would not. You don’t have to mix public things and market things,” she says.

The influence of the art market

Ms Cachin believes museums should only loan to other museums, and rejects the influence of the art market. “I think we all have to struggle a little to resist the power of money,” she says.

Ms Cachin’s views don’t reflect mainstream museum policy today, however. Tate, according to a statement, will consider loans to commercial galleries when “there is an exceptionally strong case” for “scholarly [or] monographic exhibitions” which increase understanding of an artist, and where “the public benefit of lending would far outweigh any possible commercial benefit”. In New York, the Met makes “occasional loans when there is a compelling scholarly justification”. Both the Met and MoMA make loans “on a case-by-case basis”, they say.

Critic David Cohen, the editor and publisher of, is uncomfortable with the leverage galleries appear to hold over museums. “[Major] museums which are significantly less than generous to smaller museums—often for bureaucratic reasons—are seen to be incredibly generous and flexible to these commercial galleries,” he says. “It’s clearly a power game.”

There are other potential problems to be encountered. Last year, Indianapolis Museum of Art loaned Caravaggio’s Sleeping Cupid, around 1595, to New York old master dealer Salander O’Reilly, where it was to be displayed with several other Caravaggios. “It was a thoughtful decision, an opportunity to see this work alongside two others,” says museum director Maxwell Anderson. Instead the painting, along with the rest of the exhibition, was padlocked inside the gallery on judge’s orders, when 15 litigants sued the gallery alleging improprieties. The painting was ultimately returned.

Current loan guidelines provided by the American Association of Museums (AAM) skirt the ethical considerations. “So much of our field is unregulated, which is a blessing and a curse,” says Mr Anderson. “It is probably incumbent on us to look at the issue afresh.”

Haunch of Venison’s Robert Fitzpatrick, who has experienced both sides of the divide, adds: “If the museum’s goal is to share works of art, you don’t do that by having a work in storage, in a dark, air-conditioned space under lock and key.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Public art for private gain?'