Michael Pepi on the New Museum Controversy

When Dakis Joannou, billionaire Greek art collector and member of the Board of Trustees at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, accepted the Museum’s invitation to show a portion of his private collection as part of the “Imaginary Museum” series in March, he could scarcely have anticipated the art world fracas that would ensue. After all, private collections have been shown in museums before. Even Joannou’s own collection, under the auspice of his Athens-based Deste Foundation, had been the subject of exhibitions at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in and Kunsthalle Vienna in 2005 and 2007, respectively.

Several influential critics, however, take issue with the entire enterprise, wherein a public, nonprofit institution, will organize an exhibition of a private collector who is affiliated with the museum and who owns a large portion of the work of the exhibition’s curator — the art superstar Jeff Koons. Casual onlookers, who already sensed the enormous conflict of interest, were shocked when another layer of connections, summarized by Deborah Sontag in the New York Times, exposed some of the museum’s potentially adulterating relationships with private art interests. For example, the New Museum’s current exhibition features Urs Fischer, a Swiss sculptor whose work Joannou also collects. Sontag continues:

“Mr. Fischer is represented by the gallery owner Gavin Brown, who also represents the painter Elizabeth Peyton, who had a solo show at the New Museum last year. [Last year’s Peyton show] was curated by Laura Hoptman, whose husband, Verne Dawson, belongs to Mr. Brown’s stable of artists, too… Ms. Peyton collaborated this summer on a site-specific installation on Hydra, the Greek island, sponsored by Mr. Joannou’s Athens-based art foundation, where Ms. Hoptman joined Mr. Joannou to judge a Greek artist’s contest and where Massimiliano Gioni, another New Museum curator, together with Mr. Fischer and others, curated a current exhibition of Mr. Joannou’s art. Coming full circle, Mr. Gioni curated the current Fischer show at the New Museum.”

The critiques first surfaced on blogs, notably preceding major coverage in the traditional media and art trade magazines. James Wagner, writing at jameswagner.com in one of the earliest and most vehement rebukes of the planned exhibition, quipped: “Is this even legal?” His frustration appeared logical enough: “[The New Museum] is supposedly a non-profit, and aside from the self-serving aspect, it looks a lot like insider-trading,” Wagner reasoned. “I see lots of money flying around, and I’m wondering why we shouldn’t ask, cui bono?”

On November 10, the emerging story hit the front page of the New York Times, in an article citing significant “buzz” and the “ethical flags” highlighted by a critical online community. The story addressed the charges of impropriety and of mounting a compromised “fluff-job&rdquo: exhibition, issues promulgated chiefly by art journalist, Tyler Green, who since early October has escalated his criticism of the Museum’s actions to a fever pitch on his blog Modern Art Notes. The Times fed the speculation, citing experts on the intersection of the contemporary art market and the nonprofit sphere, all of whom generally acknowledged the notion that hanging art in a museum can add value to the objects on display and boost the prestige of the collector. The combined weight of the online outrage and the added prominence of the New York Times piece put several major museum officials on the defensive, many of whom attempted to dampen or dismiss the controversy. As Richard Armstrong, Director of the Guggenheim Museum and member of the Association of Art Museum Directors, noted — “if [private collections exhibited in museums] become more valuable in the process, that doesn’t hurt anyone.”

Welcome to a full-fledged art world controversy for the digital age. One that not only broaches the critical issues plaguing the field, but also prominently features a relatively new class of influential web-based critics and the way they use social media and blogs to democratize what is famously one of the most insular and incestuous of communities. While the specific details of the debate might seem pedantic, those who care about the future of the museum — and the alternative voices at center of public opinion — should ignore it at their own peril.

The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), which exists in part to issue ethical guidelines and positions on the field, reminds us that “more than 90% of the art collections held in public trust by America’s art museums were donated by private individuals.” In 2007, the Association issued a series of questions designed to assist institutions in determining the value and ethics of collaborations with collectors on one-time exhibitions. The fifteen questions range in character from the banal: “Does the work enhance the educational opportunities provided by the museum to the public?”, to the inscrutable: “Are the collector’s motives transparent and acceptable to the museum?”

The New Museum released a statement shortly after, assuring skeptics that it “has followed the highest ethical standards in creating this exhibition,” noting correctly that they are “not the first to do an exhibition of the private collection of a world-renowned art connoisseur, and we will not be the last.” In an enlightening interview with Tyler Green on Modern Art Notes, New Museum Director Lisa Phillips explained the arrangement as a new kind of public-private partnership that allows the public to view and experience some of the best collections of contemporary art that are not normally accessible. But the specious rationale of the so-called “vanity show,” critics argue, categorically ignores the undeniable value added to works hung in museum exhibitions. And when the institution is literally blocks from the center of the contemporary art market and the artists in question are alive and actively producing works for said market, there seems to be ample reason to question the New Museum’s institutional priorities.

The American Association of Museum Curators, similar to AAMD, offered a cogent defense of the practice by reiterating the role of the curator and the opportunities presented by private collections. “Curators,” it stated, “seek to present new information on works of art based on scholarly research… an art museum curator’s involvement in a private collector show is to interpret and determine how to present the collection in question.” The presentation of private collections will properly benefit visitors assuming “the collection merits exposure,” and “fits the program and mission of the host museum.”

Museum culture devotees remember a related transgression involving another mega-collector’s collaboration with nonprofits. In 1999, the major art market player Charles Saatchi was found to have privately funded a blockbuster exhibition entitled “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection,” which traveled to several cities, including a much publicized stint at the Brooklyn Museum. For many “Sensation” signaled a new type of commercialism that threatened to undermine museum integrity by way of coercively funded exhibitions that enhanced the value of artists on view. While critics of the Joannou/New Museum arrangement may fear a reprise of the “Sensation” debacle, a direct comparison is obstructive. In fact, there is a decidedly more compelling subtext to the recent accusations that reach beyond the legal arena.

Whether or not Joannou plans to later sell these works — doubtful, in fact — the suspect relationship represents an erosion of the ideals of the museum world and the unspoken ethical code that separates the nonprofit academic sphere from the free market. The New Museum, therefore, is committing a transgression with larger implications than some are willing to concede, one that embodies a nascent sea change in how we locate authority within contemporary art museums.

Critic Tyler Green laments the New Museum’s actions on this very front. He is arguably the standard bearer of the dissent by virtue of the popularity of his Modern Art Notes, and his November 11 op-ed in the Art Newspaper roundly criticized the New Museum for “inadvertently reinforc[ing] the notion that art is trophy owned by the privileged few,” adding that “non-profit museums are supposed to be where art is studied, examined and contextualized, not a mere pass-through price-booster between the collector’s living room and the auction house.” Green’s protests are of a manifestly legal nature, too, arguing that the New Museum’s tax-exempt status is jeopardized by its effective role as a commercial gallery. Green correctly links this behavior to a value system that exudes deference to the private individual and the cult of celebrity. Regardless of the intellectual germination of the show and the curatorial integrity therein, the transgression brings to light the conflicts amongst the ideal form of the museum and the inescapable realities of their practical operation — the propriety of the show is only one element of Green’s larger remonstration of the New Museum’s direction.

Jerry Saltz, art critic at New York Magazine, took a softer position on the issue. Expressing measured disapproval of the hubris and insularity of the New Museum, Saltz defiantly declared: “I like that the art world isn’t regulated.” Saltz defended the Museum’s actions by contending that the “art boom simply made new art too expensive” and the New Museum’s decision to bring the Joannou collection to its galleries is a creative solution to the curatorial challenges of contemporary art institutions. This drew the ire of Green, who labeled Saltz an “up-with-art cheerleader.” Saltz fired back, repurposing a blog post into a print piece for New York Magazine, in which he decried Green’s “moralizing.” The “hate fest” continued until both critics made amends in the comments section of Saltz’s Facebook profile.

Indeed, a remarkable portion of the debate has progressed through social media, unraveling over updates on Twitter and Facebook. The Facebook pages of notable critics double as legitimate forums for the high-minded dialogue often reserved for the pages of esoteric journals. In a later post, James Wagner noted how it’s “exciting to find that there’s such a range of responses to the legitimate questions which are being raised.” Blogs, especially Modern Art Notes, were able to aggregate the published opinions of a range of critics and effectively create a rising tide of protest. The controversy itself is illustrative of web 2.0’s potential to influence the agenda at the highest levels of cultural life.

Even if Joannou’s collecting is financially motivated, the profit to be gained from the New Museum venture hardly seems worth the effort. More likely, the intermingling of interests is the benign coincidence of a very small art world. However, the admixture of private collector and public institution has reignited an underlying debate in the museum community. Thomas Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, warned of the “delicate dance between collectors and institutions” in a comment for the New York Times, adding, “museums have to be vigilant not to be serving the commercial interests of a dealer or a collector.” In the lucrative contemporary art market, Campbell acknowledged that collectors and dealers often “have a vested interest in creating profiles for their artists and maintaining high prices. There is pressure to keep these artists in the public eye.” Brooklyn Museum Director Arnold Lehman, also quoted in the Times, dismissed outright the conflict of interest charges. “The commitment is to show the best and most interesting art that you can,” Lehman said, noting that his institution does not have a policy on exhibitions of private collections. “It doesn’t raise any issues for me,” he added.

But perhaps some inside the museum world are unable to grasp how the New Museum controversy is indicative of a popular cultural shift — a sort of re-awakening to the threat of private interests in the museum. What we have is a skirmish amongst competing value systems. Critics of the exhibition subscribe to the idea of the museum as a bastion of aesthetic idealism, a center of disinterested academic scholarship for the edification of the public. Naturally, the field of contemporary art is dominated by private institutions, such as galleries and dealers, which are motivated by the capitalist ethos of the collector. The Kunsthalle model, roughly equivalent to the English speaking world’s “institute for contemporary art,” figures in this dynamic landscape with noble and progressive intentions, and provides a forum for experimentation and avant-garde undertakings that might be otherwise discouraged by the market-driven concerns of traditional museums and galleries. Sans permanent collections, these institutions have low overhead and can afford to take risks that a large encyclopedic museum could not for fear of alienating donors or potential members. Though, as we are seeing presently with the New Museum, non-collecting institutions must follow alternative paths to mounting large, expensive, multi-artist exhibitions.

Lisa Phillips and the curators at the New Museum insist that Joannou’s collection is singular for its collection of the most important work of the past few decades. Joannou began collecting in the early 1980s and owns works by Vanessa Beecroft, Maurizio Cattelan, Takashi Murakami, Cady Noland, Chris Ofili, Gabriel Orozco, Yinka Shonibare, and Kara Walker, among others. “The curators wanted it here. There are thousands of works in the collection…” Phillips told Green in an interview, “…it’s as vast as a museum collection. I would say that this collection provides an opportunity to see contemporary artists’ work more in depth than any museum could provide.”

Regardless of the quality of the particular work in the New Museum’s “Imaginary Museum” series, such behavior grants a significant portion of the critical discourse to the private sector of contemporary art collectors, some of who may not collect with the same noble intentions of nonprofit institutions. Amassing a collection is a complicated and intellectually rigorous undertaking that involves advisors, scholars, and curators, but transitioning the fruits of that process to the museum realm can be problematic. With contemporary work especially, the objects have not had more than a few decades to “sit” and achieve historical meaning. Many will make the case that Joannou’s collection is in fact, an accurate and outstanding record of the most important works of the past three decades. They are probably right, though this does not address what might be our developing habit of privileging private collections over traditional modes of aesthetic evaluation.

Opponents of the New Museum’s Joannou exhibition object to an institutional practice that locates authority initially with the private collector and then proceeds to dignify the body of work with museum scholarship and presentation. If we agree that, traditionally collectors’ choices are influenced first by the conclusions of the disinterested academic realm, then the New Museum’s decision to explore Joannou’s collection, would seem to be putting the cart before the horse.

In another sense, the critics also mean to send a message to the art world that the “party is over.” The decadence of the art boom left many feeling invincible and it inspired some to dismiss the boundaries that separated galleries, auction houses, fairs, and museums as outmoded. There are a handful of individuals who are quite literally “masters of the universe,” and very few people, it seemed, could object to their proposed initiatives. The boom years gave us some great art, yet they also fostered a plutocratic critical discourse that has deleterious effects on serious scholarship. The glut of new works in the last two decades — many engaged in “post modernism for post modernism’s sake” — resulted in an increasingly aloof public. The process by which living artists gain notoriety through exhibitions, prizes, and art fairs is wholly independent from their eventual audience. And too often, contemporary art is mired in a vapid dialogue with the museum-going public. This pervasive “crisis of the uninitiated” is linked to the larger dehumanizing trends in the fine art community. Robust and independent museum scholarship, which now seems to be taking a back seat to the vanity of collectors, is our best tool for creating widespread understanding of critical issues in contemporary art.

Further, repurposing the work of so many prior private sector fine art experts reduces the agency of the museum’s curators, and can render the contemporary art museum into an even more tendentious entity. Though it is impractical to imagine that a curator of contemporary art could operate in a disinterested realm that completely ignores the vagaries of the commercial art market, patrons of the New Museum and similar institutions should realize precisely what they are getting into.

But what shapes and colors much of the outrage at the New Museum in particular is the institution’s original mission and founding principles. For years, the New Museum has been an innovative, experimental space where new artists with inflammatory messages were put on display. It was celebrated, even by its current critics, as a model of progressive and subversive ideals in new curatorial landscape at a time when other institutions began to feel like old boy’s clubs. As time passed, the New Museum cultivated a brand that relied heavily on concept of the artist’s career, and rather openly touted its role as a something of an art star-maker. Its website, for example, trumpets the Museum’s penchant for exhibiting early shows by “important contemporary artists before they become widely recognized,” using conjectural language conspicuously equating living artists to something of a commodity. Such is the reason that this transgression is so pregnant with meaning. Exhibitions of private collections amount to a tacit acceptance of the superior genius of the art market — the validity of which is up for debate.

Many of these nonprofit contemporary art spaces appeal to the dominant “white cube” aesthetic, whose sparse urbanity thoroughly legitimized and sanctified what critic Harold Rosenberg called modernism’s “anxious object.” Thus there is a moral component to the methods of scholarship and exhibition of contemporary art and an inherent value in the use of recognizable “white cube” space. The current plurality of taste means that much of the work we experience today depends on the “white cube” for its meaning; so too, it follows that we create a system where works of art also depend on the context of “white cube” for their value. A great deal of post-modern production of non-art, such as performances, “happenings”, or conceptual practices must co-opt the “white cube” — whether to question its instructiveness or mock its ubiquity. The current New Museum edifice uses the allure of the white cube to legitimize and dignify marginalized contemporary art practice. Their cryptic mission statement, “New Art, New Ideas,” is a demanding maxim that suggests its own stewardship of a perpetual avant-garde. Ostensibly, they exist to challenge the inconsistencies of museum practice while also striving to serve as the contemporary art space of record. Such laudable ambition has suited them well. But can the New Museum have it both ways? Recent shows, including “After Nature” and the attractive “The Generational: Younger Than Jesus” would indicate as much.

The structural limitations of this non-collecting kunsthalle are beginning to wear at the intellectual foundations of their ideals, and the revelation of dubious art world incest, where money is most definitely “being thrown around,” is a portentous development in an otherwise noble experiment. Marcia Tucker, who founded the New Museum in 1977 and served as Director until her resignation in 1999, explained her dissatisfaction with the environment that lead to her departure: “to direct an institution nowadays you have to be an opportunist. You have to use every single social situation you get to think about fund raising and social contacts. Sorry, but the cocktail-party conversation is not my preferred mode of thought.” In the words of Village Voice critic Martha Schwendener, the New Museum was “inaugurated as an upstart venture with aims to realign the art world’s chi (or at least disintegrate a bit of its ossified power),” yet has since devolved in into “following the standard template: anointing white, male, European artists in an attempt to build a reciprocally beneficial art history.”

The dispute, specifically between Saltz and Green, can be viewed as a disagreement over the ability to square the “Imaginary Museum” series with the original intentions of the New Museum. For Saltz, soliciting exemplary private collections — even those that belong to trustees — is an acceptable curatorial maneuver in a wildly expensive market. Green, aside from sensing art world collusion, maintains that the very notion of private collection exhibitions compromises the institution’s once vaunted curatorial integrity.

This multi-faceted controversy might be settled by asking an even more complicated question: what, exactly, is the New Museum? If it were a collecting institution, it might not need to use its trustee’s private collection to exhibit the best art of the recent past. Further, if it were a collecting institution, Joannou could make significant gifts to the New Museum’s permanent collection after the “Imaginary Museum” series, as is standard practice whenever a private collection is shown at a museum. For now, the New Museum deserves credit for exploring new methods for getting the best art out in front of the most people. However, at worst, this model misconstrues the museum as weigh station for wealthy collectors to garner prestige and value to their collections before bringing them to auction, which is profoundly damaging to the museum ideal. Purists like Green will not accept such blemishes, while Saltz’s laissez-faire attitude permits what he views as minor and inessential transgressions. In short, Saltz is willing to look the other way for the sake of seeing some really great art.

Though unscrupulous elites have long collected fine art, the development of a speculative and materialistic ethos that contradicts what Andrew McClellan, author of The Art Museum From Boulee to Bilbao, terms the “rhetoric of benevolence” of the museum, is a recent and localized phenomenon of the contemporary art market. As Green notes in a crude though apt metaphor, the threat of “Chelsea invading the non-profit world” should give us pause; though only if we continue to operate within the sacred and idealized traditions of the fine art institution. McClellan’s erudite discussion of commercialism in the modern museum cites Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869), which warned how the “unfettered pursuit” of wealth and creeping materialism threatened the cultural ideals that the museum symbolizes. The regulatory organizations provide necessary watch over a field whose fundamental operating principles were, unfortunately, formed before the onset of commercial capitalism.

Twentieth century criticisms of commercialization of the museum have usually focused on market-driven initiatives in the external sense, i.e. the use of Armani, motorcycles, and corporate-sponsored exhibitions that promise to attract large crowds and increase membership. In contrast, the growing problem specific to the contemporary art institution — where the work on display is a commodity unto itself — is the museum’s potential for manipulation of a more furtive variety. The utopian solution is, as always, increased arts funding so that the lofty ideals of disinterested scholarship are never compromised to address budgetary realities.

While the vigilance that sparked this debate is warranted, it often fails to consider that the contemporary museum is a constantly evolving organism. Green and likeminded critics have railed against commercialization of the nonprofit cultural institutions, but many of us forget MoMA’s string of less than scholarly independent shows during World War II, such as “Road to Victory” in 1942 and “Airways to Peace” in 1943, which adorned the Museum with propagandistic photographs and poems emphasizing the nations military might and the virtues of the war effort. As Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum put so eloquently, “The Museum is not a temple of eternal verity; it is at best a workshop for conflicting interpretations, a house of provisional truths.”

In a variety of ways, the institutional structure of the modern museum has adapted an unwritten moral code to maintain curatorial independence, though the power of public opinion should be enlisted to discourage under-funded institutions from manipulating their ideals whenever possible.

When there are only so many shows in a given year, and only so many critics and chroniclers to write about them, at what point to we become concerned that the art market crowd makes an indelible mark on the literature of the period? The modern individual has come to expect a large degree of objectivity and we ought to fear the consequences if the ethos of the collector is allowed to seep into the art historical lexicon. Exhibitions that double as hagiography of the individual collector must be approached with great caution. A new cadre of online blogger critics have asserted their role by lining up squarely in defense of the careful separation of private and nonprofit entities. We can categorize the reaction to the New Museum’s transgression as yet another critique of capitalism’s presence in the cultural realm. We expect certain parts of society to remain nonprofit, and the calling a foul on the New Museum shows that we are still alert to the pernicious effects of late-capitalism.

The dissent is symbolic of the great democratizing of the fine art community; a world where such activity would have often previously gone unnoticed due to the small circle of those privy to the information. Thus, this new brand of vigilance should be regarded as the one of the greatest cultural contributions of social media and blogs. A new digital intelligentsia from a wider range of socio-economic classes can now inform these types of debates. Perhaps, through the efforts of these critics, we can develop a more accurate conceptual framework for these public/private partnerships without disparaging their foundations and goals. (As museums struggle to integrate new media tools into their marketing platforms, they ought to also consider the way that social media can rehabilitate deep-seated mischaracterizations by destroying the myth of the out-of-touch museum hierarchy. Simply stated, museums have little excuse to remain staid institutions that fail to engage nontraditional demographics.)

The New Museum’s critics expose the limits of the contemporary museum model: its apparent inability to distinguish its practice from forces that drive the culture industry beyond the museum walls is disconcerting. In praxis, however, museums are not unalloyed institutions of culture, but they remain our best symbols of the cultural ideal. Far from being resolved, this episode has the potential to be a watershed in the endless struggle to define the museum’s role in society, especially given the still unsettled nature of many path-breaking institutions dedicated to contemporary art. For now, we’ll listen to Jerry Saltz, who cautioned: “let’s just see the show. Then we’ll decide.”

[Originally published in Artwrit, Volume 1, December 2009.]

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