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AAMD&#146s Annual Meeting: CultureGrrl&#146s Hot-Button Agenda

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In its revised Professional Practices in Art Museums, the Association of Art Museum Directors did a laudable job in directly confronting many of the thorny issues that have roiled the field in the 10 years since the last iteration of this bible for best practices in museums. (More on these issues later.)

But there are a two hot-button topics that I feel urgently require closer examination and more stringent, detailed guidelines than are provided in the new 32-page document or in recent AAMD position papers. We need to hear more from AAMD on the proliferation of exhibitions bankrolled by self-interested sponsors, and on “rent-a-show”—the growing tendency for lending museums to extract large fees from borrowing institutions.

While the agenda for the annual meeting (which kicked off in earnest this morning) seems more focused on nuts-and-bolts than controversy, I hope that some fearless leader may introduce discussion on what I see as the growing erosion of standards regarding sponsorship. This issue have always been with us, but it seems more prevalent now, with financial support for museum operations and activities increasingly hard to come by.

In my view, AAMD should try to halt the practice of mounting shows that are largely or entirely sponsored by an individual or corporation with a direct personal or business stake in what’s being shown. Unlike some commentators, I am not unequivocally opposed to single-collector shows or displays drawn from the output of one fashion house or jewelry designer (although I think these compendiums must be done sparingly, with very strong justification and full curatorial control).

To me, the great Smithsonian exhibition scandal is not the groundbreaking “Hide/Seek” show that aroused such controversy; it is the Van Cleef & Arpels show now at the Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York (extended to July 4):

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I don’t have to describe what’s wrong with that show. Karen Rosenberg, in the NY Times, already has. Even in a more defensible case—the Metropolitan Museum’s darkly enchanting Alexander McQueen extravaganza—the underwriter should have been someone other than the fashion house bearing the late designer’s name. Failing that, the funding should have come from the museum’s own exhibition budget.

If the sponsor’s name is in the title of the show, the conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict of interest is too close for comfort. There’s also a slippery-slope problem: Financially pressed museums may fall into a pattern of doing shows attached to easily obtained, self-interested sponsorship (not to mention easily gleaned objects and supporting materials), rather than tackling shows that might be more difficult to organize and fund, but more worthy of the museum’s time and attention.

A corollary to this: AAMD should frown upon the bankrolling of a one-artist show by the dealer representing that artist.

AAMD did address the issue of self-interested sponsorship in two 2007 statements, posted on its website: Managing the Relationship Between Art Museums and Corporate Sponsors, May 2007, gingerly suggests areas of concern in a series of questions; it should, instead, forthrightly enunciate clear guidelines. AAMD’s statement on single-collector exhibitions—Art Museums, Private Collectors and the Public Benefit, January 2007—is likewise phrased as a seres of questions, not a list of ethical standards. (CultureGrrl‘s suggested standards are here.)

The second neglected hot-button issue that should be addressed is the pernicious phenomenon of “rent-a-show,” which got whitewashed as “collaboration” at a recent panel discussion by museum luminaries—International Collaborations in the Arts, held in New York, May 18, at Asia Society. I regard these arrangements less as “collaborations” than as financially-driven exploitations of object-poor museums by object-rich museums.

The driving force in organizing this high-powered panel was Michael Shapiro, director of the rent-paying High Museum in Atlanta. Henri Loyrette, director of Rent-a-Louvre, which has “loaned” big shows for big bucks to the High and other museums, was also a speaker:

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Left to right: Gabriele Finaldi, deputy director, Prado Museum; John Leighton, director-general, National Galleries of Scotland; Michael Shapiro, director, High Museum, Atlanta; Jeffrey Brown, correspondent and producer, PBS NewsHour (moderator); Elizabeth Glassman, president and CEO, Terra Foundation for American Art; Mark Roglán, director, Meadows Museum, Dallas; Henri Loyrette, director, Musée du Louvre

It’s too bad that former Metropolitan Museum director Philippe de Montebello, who has publicly asserted that “loans must remain free” (particularly “between developed countries”), was seated in the audience instead of onstage.

To its credit, AAMD at least mentions this issue, in passing, in its new “Professional Practices”:

Museums rely on one another for loans to exhibitions, and a spirit of cooperation and collegiality should inform decisions relative to such loans and the setting of charges and fees [emphasis added].

The growing tendency to exploit collections as cash cows, at the expense of sister institutions, can only be arrested by a more forceful AAMD stance. “Should” (in the above quotation) must be changed to “must.”

A current show that I suspect may be a fundraiser for its lending institution is the Museum of Modern Art’s Abstract Expressionist New York, now on view (to Sept. 4) at the Art Gallery of Ontario. At $25 a pop, admission fees for this visually impressive but insufficiently interpreted array seem calculated to enhance MoMA’s bottom line, while temporarily depriving the home audience of an entire chapter of the contemporary-art narrative.

For all I know (although I doubt it), the beneficiary of the financial windfall from this big-ticket show may be the AGO. Spokespersons for both the Toronto museum and for MoMA declined to tell me whether AbEx NY is indeed structured as a megabucks fundraiser for the lending institution.

And what about the proceeds from the $60 AbEx Backpack? Has “Jack the Dripper” become “Jack the Shlepper”?

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