The director of Tate Modern in London, Frances Morris, has organised an exhibition of post-war art from Europe and Asia due to open this month at the George Economou Collection, a private museum in Athens set up by the eponymous Greek shipping magnate (13 October-9 April 2017). Earlier this year, the same private gallery hosted a survey of Minimalism organised by the Tate curator Mark Godfrey.
These shows follow a cash gift made to Tate Modern by the Greek tycoon, who is a trustee of the Tate foundation, an advisory and fundraising board. Although the museum declined to disclose the size of Economou’s gift, it was large enough for one of the galleries in Tate Modern’s new £260m Herzog & de Meuron-designed extension to be named after him.
This collaboration between one of the world’s leading museums and a wealthy patron exemplifies the ever closer ties between public institutions and the rich in an era of reduced government funding. Although collectors have always served on museum boards, many are now opening their own galleries as well—and asking the curators and directors of public museums to organise exhibitions for them. “There used to be a dyke between private interest and public purpose and now it’s burst,” says one senior art world source. “It’s a complete sea change in how museums operate.”
Directors for hire? Morris is not the only director who has organised a show for a museum donor. In 2011, the director of the Whitechapel Gallery in London, Iwona Blazwick, embarked on a three-year partnership with the Anglo-Canadian Weston family. In exchange for a donation to the Whitechapel’s programming and education fund, Blazwick organised three exhibitions at the Weston’s art gallery at Windsor, a gated community near Orlando, Florida.
Meanwhile, Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma), developed a relationship with the French luxury goods magnate and collector François Pinault when both were trying to acquire Bruce Nauman’s installation For Beginners (2010). Pinault bought the work in 2011 and donated a 50% stake to Lacma.
Two years later, Govan co-organised a show of Mono-ha and Arte Povera at Punta della Dogana, Pinault’s private museum in Venice, Italy. “We share many artists of common interest, which led to his asking me to have a dialogue with his collection and this resulted in an ongoing relationship,” Govan says in a statement.
As museums increasingly compete for donations of both cash and art from deep-pocketed individuals, we are likely to see more of these apparent quid pro quos. The Belgian collector Alain Servais observes: “There have been attacks on corporate funding of museums, such as the demonstrations surrounding BP’s sponsorship of Tate.” (Earlier this year, the oil company ended its 26-year sponsorship of the London museum following numerous protests.) “The public doesn’t want institutions to be funded by cigarette money or oil money. Who should they be funded by?” Servais asks.
Nicholas Cullinan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, says: “The key question is how a museum navigates these waters ethically, transparently and to the benefit of its visitors, staff and supporters.”
“Implicitly regressive” Yet collaborations with private collectors have the potential to subvert the purpose of museums, warns Adrian Ellis, the director of the cultural advisory firm AEA Consulting. “Museums are supported by public money, either through direct funding in Europe or tax benefits in the United States. If the beneficiaries of this are collectors, there is an implicitly regressive element where money is taken away from poorer people and given to rich people.”
Even if collectors have transferred ownership of their art to foundations, “these organisations are often still effectively controlled by the donors and many of them don’t make a hard distinction between their foundation’s assets and what they own privately”, Ellis says.
The George Economou Collection is a “not-for-profit, free admission space which creates exhibitions to aid in expanding the international dialogue as well as inspiring the public”, the director of the collection, Skarlet Smatana, says in a statement. She adds that guest curators bring different viewpoints and expert knowledge, and that the museum has “not received any comments related to a conflict of interest with museum relationships”. But she declined to specify whether the collection ever sells art, a scenario that allows private collectors to benefit financially from the stamp of approval given by the leader of a museum.
A Tate spokeswoman points out that Economou’s cash gift to the institution was made in 2011, long before Morris was invited to organise the exhibition in Athens and before she became director. The spokeswoman adds that Tate curators are frequently invited to organise shows outside the museum’s walls. The institution evaluates these opportunities based on “key criteria”, she says, including the excellence of the collection, the public benefit of the project and the potential to further public knowledge of the subject.
Don’t criticise private collectors’ art One insidious effect of museums’ desire to keep collectors happy is self-censorship, says Chris Dercon, the recently departed director of Tate Modern. He says it has become impossible to criticise the acquisitions of private collectors. “When I was working in [Europe], we used to have lengthy debates about which collector has better examples of conceptual art. We would discuss this directly with the collectors themselves. In London, I learned to be very careful,” he says. “We are all extremely polite [to collectors who show us their acquisitions] to the point where critique as we knew it does not exist any more.”