Museums lending to commercial galleries: The debate

Director of the Rose Art Museum examines both sides of the argument


Lindsay Pollock’s piece “Public Art for Private Gain” (The Art Newspaper, December 2008, p37) was a thoughtful and measured discussion of a major topic in the increasingly boundaryless world of art. The issue of museums lending works of art to for-profit galleries for exhibitions is, indeed, a murky one, but as the director of a museum who did lend to Haunch of Venison’s “Abstract Expressionism: A World Elsewhere” (12 September-12 November 2008) in its New York gallery, I want to make a few things clear as well as raise some other questions. After considerable deliberation, we decided to lend our great Willem de Kooning, Untitled, 1961, largely because of our long-standing relationship with the curator, David Anfam, who had been a Luce Fellow at the Rose Art Museum. We received assurances, naturally, that no work in the exhibition would be for sale and that other museums would also be lending. There was absolutely no consideration on our part for future gains in terms of borrowing works from Haunch of Venison for a possible exhibition. Do these factors mean that our decision is totally justifiable and there really is no problem with museums lending precious work to commercial enterprises? No.

We decided that this issue really needs further consideration and debate among art professionals, but, in the meantime to deny the ever-expanding synergy between galleries and museums (for better or worse) would be shortsighted. We also knew that more visitors would see our De Kooning in New York (clearly identified as owned by the Rose) than come to our place in a year. There is not a museum in the world that does not cultivate relationships with galleries, which often represent the work of the living artist whom the museum wants to exhibit or the estate of the deceased artist who is of interest. No major monographic exhibition of a contemporary artist has been accomplished without the support of the artist’s gallery (which sometimes means financial support, a subject of further discussion). Galleries assist in securing loans for exhibitions from collectors whom the museum curator may not have access to, and galleries are now creating “museum quality” exhibitions that unabashedly rival, if not surpass, what museums are doing. It was this last phenomenon that we sought to address at the Rose this past year.

Having observed the phenomenon of curators creating world-class exhibitions for dealers for at least the past 15 years (Francesco Bonami has curated a few for Barbara Gladstone dating back at least ten years), I decided that we, as a museum, wanted to take back some of the power or at least reverse the phenomenon somewhat and examine critically the gallery as museum, but in such a way that critique and education, not market factors, were fundamental. The exhibition “Broken Home” was curated by Caroline Schneider and Meg O’Rourke for Greene Naftali Gallery in 1997 and included works by Robert Gober, Vito Acconci, Thomas Demand and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, to name a few. We intended to rattle the system a bit and raise the very thorny questions about museums’ relationships with galleries and curators’ relationships with commercial enterprises. We didn’t offer any answers, but the overarching impression among artists, curators and museum directors whom we invited to various panels was that the art world is constantly changing, and integrity can indeed be maintained, while engaging with the forces that are making some of the old boundaries between the commercial and the not-for-profit obsolete. We also wanted to present a well conceived exhibition with some formidable art. In its originating venue the work was indeed for sale, but at the Rose Art Museum it wasn’t. The curators, both of whom were independent at the time, clearly had an eye for quality and a concept to match. Nonetheless, should curators be giving their stamp of approval to commercial galleries by bringing their hard-won expertise to a commercial show? If a work is museum quality why isn’t it in a museum? Are museums relinquishing their status as the originator of important historical moments in art to dealers who are perhaps more nimble and financially able to organise quality exhibitions? By presenting this exhibition in a museum we sought to historicise these questions and bring into the open curatorial practices that are simply happening more and more. (Another rarely questioned phenomenon, the nadir of curatorial practice, as far as I am concerned, is the virtual transfer of a single-artist dealer’s show to a museum, for example to a “project space”. Who’s the curator here? Clearly, the dealer.)

It’s all too easy to suggest that the cloudy alliances between museums and commercial galleries are fundamentally about money. Money, of course, especially now, plays into everything, but museums and curators needn’t abandon their independence and critical distance because of some fatuous notion of being soiled by money if they cooperate with commercial galleries.

Gain can never be a motivation for lending works of art or for deciding on an artist to exhibit. We need to be constantly vigilant in our decision making. But it is also foolish and reactionary to think that there exists some “pure” separation between the principled museum and the unprincipled gallery or art fair or auction house. The synergy among these entities is deepening and it is incumbent upon museum professionals to both embrace the good that comes from these combined forces and constantly cling to the boundaries that do indeed keep the encroachments of the marketplace at bay. My fear is that we are not debating enough, but rushing all too quickly towards formulating rules and imposing statutes on developments that are still evolving.

The writer is the Henry and Lois Foster Director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University and an author and critic