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Dakis Fracas, Continued: The Artists, the Funders and the AAMD President’s Statement UPDATED

Artist-turned-curator Jeff Koons in his studio recently

With more details having emerged about the New Museum’s upcoming Jeff Koons-curated show of Dakis Joannou‘s collection, Mar. 3-June 6, including a list of artists (scroll down), it seemed to be time for me to re-send my question that had gone unanswered by the museum’s press office, despite my repeated attempts to elicit a response:

Is it pay-to-play?

That question seemed particularly pertinent (or impertinent) in light of the new press release for the show, now titled “Skin Fruit” (having to do with the inside/outside dichotomy that Koons had previously mentioned to me). Unlike most exhibition press releases, this one says nothing at all about how the show is supported.

Contrast that with this press release for the New Museum’s just-closed Urs Fischer show, which listed an array of funders:

Brant Foundation; Burger Collection, Hong Kong; Jeffrey Deitch; Dakis Joannou; Amalia Dayan and Adam Lindemann; Eugenio López; LUMA Foundation; Peter Morton Foundation; François Pinault; Ringier Collection, Switzerland; Tony Salame; Steven A. and Alexandra M. Cohen Foundation, Inc.; and Teiger Foundation. Additional support provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and Pro Helvetia, Swiss Arts Council.

Today, responding to another e-mail from me and a follow-up phone call, Gabriel Einsohn, the New Museum’s communications director, at last sent me this note:

Dakis Joannou is not contributing funding to underwrite this exhibition. The exhibition is supported by general museum program funds. Associated educational programming and public events are supported by the Hearst Educational Fund, the Keith Haring Fund for School and Youth Programs, and the Charlotte and Bill Ford Artists Talks Fund. Support for the accompanying publication is provided by the J. McSweeney and G. Mills Publications Fund at the New Museum.

That was illuminating: It now appears that no outside donors—private, nonprofit or corporate—have stepped up to fund this private-collection display (only its educational component and catalogue).

Still, Gabriel’s response didn’t directly answer my question, which was:

Is Dakis Joannou providing any financial support, direct or indirect [emphasis added], such as catalogue, shipping, insurance, for the exhibition? If so, what is the nature of that support?

As I had noted in my above-linked post, not “underwriting” an exhibition wouldn’t necessarily mean not providing indirect support for expenses related to the catalogue, shipping and insurance.

In a follow-up phone conversation after I received her e-mail, Einsohn unequivocally answered “No” to my question of whether any indirect support or funding of any kind was being provided for the exhibition by the collector. Why it took so long for me to get a simple answer to a simple question is anyone’s guess.

Now that we’ve finally got that out of the way, let’s look at the upcoming show’s familiar roster of conventional museum favorites (linked at the top). With a few exceptions, the choices feel like a retrospective of New York museums’ contemporary shows of yesteryear. This behind-the-curve vibe is not what I thought the New Museum had in mind when it announced its forward-looking mission as: “New Art, New Ideas.”

From the upcoming “Skin Fruit” show: Jeff Koons, “One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank,” 1985, Dakis Joannou Collection, Athens

Perhaps the more important question raised by the Joannou show—the first of the New Museum’s new series, The Imaginary Museum, of exhibitions devoted to (as yet unnamed) private collections—is whether this museum has essentially revised its original mission, just two years after reopening. In my admiring review when the new SANAA-designed facility opened, I praised it for being an “uninstitutional institution, as envisioned by its late founder, Marcia Tucker….New York’s market-obsessed, reputation-fixated artworld sorely needs a scrappy, edgy, bobbing-and-weaving outpost of the untidy cutting edge.”

Now, instead of continuing its string of consciousness-expanding, boundary-busting shows assembled by savvy, adventurous curators, the museum will showcase a blue-chip collection (perhaps the first of many), consisting largely of known quantities, curated by a certified art star whose glitzy, bulbous sculptures have become icons of the art-market bubble.

While not directly addressing the Dakis Fracas, the Association of Art Museum Director’s president, Michael Conforti, was clearly inspired by the controversy when he devoted his entire Letter from AAMD’s President last month to “Private Collections in the Public Space.”

Conforti stated:

We believe it is critical to maintain a balance between the benefit to the public of exhibiting privately owned works against the potential for conflicts of interest and the undermining of curatorial authority. In addition, because the monetary value of any work of art is arguably enhanced through exhibition in a public museum, museums must be mindful of showing works that may soon be destined for the marketplace.

All these issues must be weighed by an institution as it makes the decision to go forward with exhibitions that include works from private collections. A museum must be prepared to explain its decision in light of its mission and policies and the ethics of the field.

Similarly, in its prior statement about Art Museums, Private Collectors and the Public Benefit, AAMD discussed the various factors that museums should “weigh” in contemplating such exhibitions.

Suggestions to weigh things are not enough. Clear guidelines are needed to preclude collectors from paying museums to mount shows of their private troves, to prevent museum displays from morphing into presale exhibitions, and to guard against the conflicts of interest inherent in shows that are drawn entirely from the collection of a trustee of the exhibiting institution. In the latter case, I believe that no such show should be mounted unless the works on display are promised to the museum.

True, the New Museum is not yet a collecting museum. But it has previously suggested that it would like to become one. It may be too late to extract a commitment from Joannou to donate the art being loaned to the upcoming exhibition. But any future “Imaginary Museum” show drawn from a trustee’s collection should make it clear, through just such a commitment, that it is mounted exclusively for the benefit of the public, not that of the trustee/collector.

UPDATE: Wait a minute! The New Museum’s upcoming exhibition schedule, through Spring 2012, has just hit my inbox. Nary an “imaginary museum” in sight! Lots of interesting, off-the-chart ideas. Have they (wisely) decided to revert to the “real” New Museum and abandon the imaginary one?

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