WHEN MUSEUMS PLAY A COMMODITIES GAME
What's remarkable about the Tut show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, for which the museum has effectively sold its good name and gallery space to a for-profit company, is that people still find this arrangement shocking.
Outrageous? Sure. It's an abdication of responsibility, integrity, standards. But it's becoming the norm in the United States.
Money rules. It always has, of course. But at cultural institutions today, it seems increasingly to corrupt ethics and undermine bedrock goals like preserving collections and upholding the public interest. Curators are no longer making decisions. Rich collectors, shortsighted directors and outside commercial interests are. When the New York Public Library traded away one of the city's great civic treasures, Asher B. Durand's "Kindred Spirits," in a closed auction for $35 million, the library's curators didn't find out about the sale until hours before the public read about it in the newspaper.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Museum has entered into an arrangement even more problematic than the one for the King Tut show. Tut, after all, will come and go. But the museum is making more lasting plans with the billionaire contemporary art collector Eli Broad, letting him build a museum that he can oversee, with his name on it, on museum property - on public, tax-free land. Los Angeles County will then pay to maintain it.
The gamble is that someday the museum will inherit the art. "Why would I be spending at least $60 million if my collection were going elsewhere?" he asked a reporter for The New York Times, Susan Freudenheim, before adding: "There are no promises." When word went around the art world this spring that Broad was considering his own candidates for the position of deputy director for contemporary art, Andrea Rich, the museum's director, announced she was retiring.
I think the apt business term is leveraged buyout.
Business is also behind the Boston Museum of Fine Arts's renting out Impressionist paintings to the Royal Academy in London and to a subsidiary of a commercial dealer, Pace Wildenstein, which runs a for-profit gallery in the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
The arrangement may seem like a harmless way to generate revenue. But renting is tricky. Every time a work of art goes on the road, there's a chance it will be damaged or lost. As custodians of public treasures, museums are supposed to decide which exhibitions are worth the risk - based on public learning, not short-term profit. That's the principle, anyway.
The model also depends on the notion of collective benevolence. Museums and libraries share collections and expertise because, ultimately, the public owns the art and pays for the expertise. In the real world, the richest museums and libraries command the best loans and stiffest terms, and get favors (curatorial trips, goods and services) in exchange. But sharing, for the mutual end of cultural improvement, remains the goal.
Cash alters that equation. Last year Boston rented 21 Monets to the Bellagio. Now it is leasing art to the show in London and also to another Bellagio exhibition, "The Impressionist Landscape from Corot to van Gogh," run by Pace Wildenstein. Ticket price: $15 (which, if you look on the bright side, is half the fee at Tut). When collections become assets, it's a short step from renting art to selling it. Not casting off a bit of detritus, but deaccessioning multimillion-dollar pictures to capitalize on a red-hot market, as standard-bearers are now doing.
Despite the firestorm over "Kindred Spirits," the Public Library is preparing to auction off more of its American art collection this autumn, including paintings by Gilbert Stuart. And the Museum of modern Art has sold, among other things, a Picasso, a de Chirico, a de Kooning and a Polock, artists to whom it has historic commitments. Last month it raised eyebrows by dispensing with a $5.4 million landscape by the 19th-century French painter Henri-Edmond Cross, a colleague of Seurat and Signac.
The museum's director, Glenn Lowry, explained that Cross (in contrast to Picasso and Pollock?) was not an artist to whom the Modern had any particular commitment, and he said that the picture would never be shown, as if future tastes were predictable. This after the Modern justified its new building (admission fee: $20) by saying it provided more room to show a wider range of art.
The Modern and the Public Library point out that they sell to buy - to upgrade the collections. Perhaps. But museums have made mistakes in the past, tastes change, and what seemed extraneous at one moment becomes desirable at another. Moreover, when collections become fungible, trustees may no longer feel compelled to raise money themselves.
Boston and Los Angeles say that the Vegas shows and the Tut show give ordinary folk the chance to see what they otherwise couldn't. It's the bread and circuses argument, which also misses the larger point: who controls public property. A steady corrosion of faith in the integrity of institutions will be the long-term price for short-term wheeling and dealing.
With faith goes the delicate ecosystem of charitable contributions and tax-free privileges. Why, the public will ask, do institutions like these reap the benefits of non-profit status if they service private interests who shape the content of what's on view and/or reap cash rewards? Broad can continue to buy and sell his own pictures while they accrue prestige through their association with the museum. With Tut, it's hard to say what's worse: that the museum agreed to give up curatorial authority over an exhibition in its own galleries or that it isn't even making much money in return. That is "the way the deal is structured," Rich informed The Los Angeles Times.
What the museums hopes to gain are new members. But spikes in membership, occasions by block busters or the opening of new buildings, are notoriously fickle.
This is the mind-set of Wall Street quarterly earnings reports and the way that many members of museum and library boards are now accustomed to think. They view nonprofits as staid. Collections in storage are underutilized commodities; the booming art market is a golden opportunity; success should be judged by hard numbers. But museums and libraries are not commercial enterprises. True success is measured by hard-to-quantify intangibles: the quality of research and education; the study, care and maintenance of the collections; the level of public trust.
Maybe trust now sounds like one of those platitudes that purist fogies bark while the caravan rolls on. So call it accountability. The public ought to demand more of it, along with greater transparency. Attorneys general should, too.
In Europe, museums are run by governments (although increasingly they have been receiving private sponsorship for events, renovations and other costs). In the United States, capitalism rules. So museums must compete for cash, collectors, visitors. On the whole, the system works.
But it rests on faith that fundamental decisions (what to acquire, what to sell, what to exhibit and how to exhibit it) belong not to private and commercial interests but to specialists, curators and scholars, serving the public and posterity. When philanthropists see a museum or library cannibalizing its collection, they may think twice before anteing up. When museums lease their art and pay cash for shows whose content is then subcontracted, other museums may decide that lending is na´ve. They'll rent to the highest bidder, never mind whether other museums wish to borrow art for better reasons.
Regarding the collector Broad's deal with the Los Angeles County Museum, Rich said, "I ask myself what's the worst that could happen? We don't get the art, and we get a great building."
That's one way of putting it. But another is that museums, having devalued their principles for short-term gains, may earn the public's contempt in the long run.