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The New Museum’s Dakis Fracas: Is It Pay-to-Play?

“Guilty,” the yacht embellished by Jeff Koons for collector Dakis Joannou

When does a single-collector show at a nonprofit museum cross the ethical line from inadvisable to unacceptable?

When it involves pay-to-play.

I’m not saying that’s the case with the New Museum’s much criticized future exhibition of works from the collection of Greek Cypriot industrialist Dakis Joannou. But I AM saying that since mid-October I’ve been trying, without success, to get the museum to let me know who the funders are for that show and whether any of that money is coming from the collector himself.

Even yesterday, after the notoriety caused by the NY Timesfront-page article examining the museum-collector nexus, the New Museum said nothing about the funding for the show in the statement it issued to the NY Times, The Art Newspaper and me about the controversy.

Only in Linda Yablonsky‘s piece for The Art Newspaper (posted online yesterday) do we have an unequivocal statement (but not a direct quote) from Lisa Phillips, director of the museum, “that the museum is assuming all costs [emphasis added] associated with the Joannou exhibition and that her board has a policy against trustees lending a work of art if they are actively planning to sell it.”

The Times’ treatment of the crucial issue of lender funding was somewhat less precise: Deborah Sontag and Robin Pogrebin reported (again, not as a direct quote from a museum official) that “Mr. Joannou is not underwriting the exhibition.” The problem is that providing partial support, or defraying the costs of the catalogue, shipping, insurance, etc., might not technically qualify as “underwriting.” But it would nevertheless smack of pay-to-play.

I first raised the question about the exhibition’s funding in an e-mail to the museum’s press office on Oct. 17. I then noted that the press release for the show (now dated Oct. 29, but originally dated and sent on Sept. 25) said nothing about “where support for the exhibition will be coming from. Can you please tell me the funders?” I inquired.

On Oct. 19, Gabriel Einsohn, the New Museum’s communications director, replied:

It is too early to share funding information details on the show—funding partially also depends on the types of work included in the show, and since the selection is still in the early process, again, can’t share details at this point.
Thanks for your interest.

My interest continued. That same day, I followed up with this query, to which I received no reply:

I can understand that the entire funding package isn’t in place yet. But can you please tell me if any of the funding for the show will come from Joannou himself or his foundation (Deste) and, if so, will it be a substantial amount of the total cost?

Yesterday, in an Indianapolis hotel room, my jaw dropped upon seeing the page-one treatment of this contretemps. Just before I headed to the airport to fly home from my week-long travels, I shot off a list of detailed questions to Einsohn, reminding her that she hadn’t answered my previous query.

In reply, she sent me the statement (which said nothing about the funding) that was also dispatched to the Times and Art Newspaper. She added that the museum would have no further comment.

Even if it’s true that Dakis isn’t providing funds to defray the costs of the show, there could be an indirect form of pay-to-play, which I directly inquired about in my most recent unanswered list of questions: Did Joannou significantly increase his support for general endowment or operations contemporaneously with the institution’s decision to display his contemporary-art trove (shades of Guggenheim/Armani)? His status as a powerful player and an expected major contributor, as a member of the New Museum’s board of trustees, makes this situation particularly rife with pay-to-play potential.

Notwithstanding the museum’s aforementioned strictures “against trustees [and other collectors?] lending a work of art if they are actively planning to sell it,” Joannou is well known as a seller (shades of Brooklyn/Saatchi). At last May’s contemporary art sale at Sotheby’s, for example, he unloaded two works—by Martin Kippenberger and Christopher Wool—that, as reported by the NY TimesCarol Vogel, were subject to an “irrevocable bid, meaning that before the sale, a buyer had already agreed to purchase the art for an undisclosed sum.” That’s sophisticated market-playing.

The New Museum has abdicated its curatorial responsibility by relinquishing the reins to Jeff Koons—an artist in the show and a good friend of Joannou. If I were one of the other artists in the collection, I’d be fuming over the decision to privilege Koons in determining how these works should be installed and interpreted. This is a far cry from the New Museum’s inaugural theme show assembled by its savvy curators in its new building—Unmonumental.

I don’t categorically dismiss the value and even desirability of occasional single-collector exhibitions, although I’m much more confortable with (and satisfied by) shows that are carefully and intelligently orchestrated by professional curators, who gather telling examples from a wide variety of sources.

But what’s needed in these potentially dicey circumstances is complete transparency about both the sources of financial support and the rationale for putting the museum’s imprimatur on a particular collection. What got the Brooklyn Museum into trouble regarding its famous, fabulous “Sensation” show (aside from the foolish elephant-dung uproar) is that the museum at first claimed that collector Charles Saatchi had provided no financial support for the show. It later emerged that he had paid to insure the works and later, when Brooklyn’s fundraising came up short, he agreed to kick in $160,000 to ship the objects.

Other essential conditions for any single-collector show are stringent safeguards against works’ being sold off the walls (or soon thereafter), as well as complete avoidance of even the appearance of pay-to-play.

A public museum’s space and curatorial responsibilities should never be put up for sale to private interests. We need to know clearly, unequivocally and in great detail that this is not the case in this instance.

You can bet that critics attending the New Museum in early March, when the Joannou show is scheduled to open, will be examining this exhibition closely, with an eye to weighing its rewards against the risks to the New Museum’s professional reputation.

an ArtsJournal blog