New Museum show of trustee's collection is an insult to scholarship and curators

Private-collector museums


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 (