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Art-Market Fever: The Marginalization of Museums

In my comments today on New York Public Radio‘s Morning Edition, I briefly touch on what most concerns me about the super-heated art market—the growing marginalization of museums.
There is much more to say:
The inability of art institutions to compete with big-money collectors in acquiring art is an old problem that has only gotten worse. I recently spoke to one major museum director whose institution had been prepared to acquire a work at one of last fall’s evening sales: The museum’s representative never even bothered to bid. It would have been pointless.
What IS new is that museums can no longer count on masterpieces’ eventually making their way into the public domain by gifts or bequests. Old-style collectors used to rely heavily on curators for advice and access to dealers’ best offerings. This debt would be duly paid through loans and eventual benefactions to the museums. But now major collectors receive counsel from their own private advisors and from the upper echelon of dealer/tastemakers. And recent changes in the tax laws regarding fractional gifts are making it far less financially attractive for big-money collectors to donate big-ticket works.
Mega-collectors simply don’t need museums as much as they used to. Their art-market clout derives from their overwhelming purchasing power, not their curatorial connections. In its recent editorial decrying Steve Cohen‘s loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Damien Hirst‘s shark, the NY Times quaintly claimed: “It may appear as if Mr. Cohen is doing the Met a favor by lending this work. In fact,” the Times pundits argue, “it is the other way around,” because the Met display has the effect of “endorsing and validating the quality of the collector’s eye.”
What the Times editorial board hasn’t caught onto yet is that today’s ultimate validator of artistic worth is not the high regard of a museum curator but the high price paid through a dealer or an auction house. Never mind that there is no direct correlation between market value and artistic value. That doesn’t seem to matter much any more: In today’s pecking order, Klimt is King. Rothko trumps Rembrandt.
Not only don’t collectors feel beholden to curators, but many are starting to feel the curatorial urge themselves. Cohen is reportedly thinking of establishing his own museum as the ultimate repository for his holdings, as several other collectors have recently done. The latest entrant into the museum-of-one’s-own ranks is Donald Fisher, founder and now chairman emeritus of the Gap, who last week announced plans to set up his own art facility in San Francisco.
Not only are museums losing their clout, but they’re losing their art: The stratospheric art market is tempting museums, more than ever, to sell museum-quality works from their so-called permanent collections, as the only means by which they can afford to buy other works.
We’ve yet to hear what the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo is buying with the proceeds from the more than $70 million worth of antiquities and other objects that it sold earlier this year in a series of auctions at Sotheby’s. It has said that it will lavish its newfound wealth on acquisitions of contemporary art. Will the Albright-Knox replace its late Hellenistic bronze, Artemis and the Stag (now lost to the public domain) with a Joseph Beuys Stag? Is this a worthy tradeoff?
In case we needed any further confirmation that the balance of power has shifted to the auction world from the museum world, we’ve recently heard that the director of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, Lisa Dennison, will be joining Sotheby’s in September as “a senior client relationship director.” One type of client whom she is particularly well suited to serve may be museums interested in cashing in some of their collection chips.
Dennison, a lifelong museum denizen, has made no secret of where she now thinks the power (not to mention the money) resides. She recently commented to Lindsay Pollock of Bloomberg:
We are in an explosive art market, and I wanted to be able to hitch my wagon to their star.
As someone who places cultural value above monetary value, I worry about marketmania, where top-level collecting is becoming the ultimate assertion of financial clout, rather than the ultimate expression of artistic appreciation. Museums and art lovers may well be the losers.

an ArtsJournal blog