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AFA Museum Funding Panel: Tom Campbell, Ari Wiseman on Donor Influence (or lack thereof)

Left to right at last Wednesday’s all-star panel on museum funding: Thomas Campbell, Maxwell Anderson (moderator), Ari Wiseman
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

[We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for my Twitter feed’s Hurricane Sandy updates (with photos), from my perch atop the New Jersey Palisades, overlooking the Hudson River and Manhattan—here, here and here. At this writing, I’m hearing a lot of crashing, and our lights have twice flickered.]

In yesterday’s NY Times special section on “Fine Arts & Exhibits” (which, I assume, is the successor to the former “Museums” section), Carol Vogel published the lead piece on the ways in which lines between auction houses, galleries and museums are blurring (to my mind problematically).

That’s a good segue to my public interchange last week with Tom Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum, and Ari Wiseman, deputy director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, at the end of the American Federation of Arts-organized colloquy on museum funding by a panel of high-powered museum officials and experts in cultural philanthropy.

At the end of the Q&A period, I asked the panelists about a blurring of boundaries not mentioned yesterday by Vogel—the line between exhibitions sponsors and the curators who should call the professional shots.

Ethical standards of previous decades called for a hands-off approach by sponsors when it came to the content of exhibitions and methods of presentation. Particularly frowned upon as a conflict of interest was accepting dealer support (other than funds for catalogue publication) for exhibitions of artists they represented commercially.

Those time-honored standards seem to be changing (and not for the good, in my view). So when the panelists briefly alluded to the sometimes problematic expectations of donors, a follow-up question (or maybe two) seemed in order:

Rosenbaum: Melissa Chiu [the director of the Asia Society Museum, who had to leave early to catch a plane] mentioned that foreign governments are becoming increasingly involved in funding exhibitions. Don’t they have certain expectations about how their cultures and societies are presented in connection with their support? And is that potentially a problem?

On the contemporary side, we’re seeing more and more exhibitions funded by the collectors and dealers who have a vested interest in the particular artist who’s being presented in a retrospective. Are there expectations there that are hard to deal with? And also, doesn’t that create a temptation to show those artists who have that kind of wealthy base to support an exhibition?

Campbell: [In earlier remarks] I’ve cited the complexity of funding our very worthwhile Costume Institute exhibitions [specifically, he had mentioned the Alexander McQueen show], where on occasion we’ve taken funding from the parent companies that supported one designer or another—obviously a potential conflict of interest, obviously an issue we have to think very carefully about on a case-by-case basis.

Similarly, the funding of contemporary art exhibitions is a minefield, but the art of our time is very much something that an institution like the Met should be engaging with. I think we have to be very careful about it [how?], but it’s a reality we have to face.

[With foreign government funders] it’s going to be an interesting dialogue. We’ve traditionally borrowed objects from around the world [and] mounted great educational exhibitions. I think that in the future—with the explosion of museum-building in China, with the professionalization of museums that’s coming in India, with museum-building in Eastern Europe, Brazil, Latin America—we are increasingly going to be partners with these new institutions. I think we have an exciting role to play in that dialogue.

We currently have a loan exhibition in Japan. We are about to send a significant body of Chinese paintings to Shanghai—both firsts for us in this kind of partnership [emphasis added]. Clearly, we will be dealing with countries or organizations that may have an agenda. We’ll have to deal with that as it comes. [How?]

Wiseman: I think dealers often want to support the exhibitions of their artists and often they have the capacity to. I am not aware of any situation where a museum has made a decision based on a dealer who would support the show.

I also think the issue may be a little more complicated. I think there are instances where museums may think of an artist who has powerful, wealthy supporters who are major collectors and this may create problems for a museum as well and headaches. It’s not just that the money starts flowing and that the museum can do its job much more easily. So I think it may also make museums question doing certain shows where certain collectors come along with that artist.

Rosenbaum: What are the problems that can be created by the collectors? What kinds of problems are you referring to?

Wiseman: A myriad of problems that you might be able to imagine yourself—requests that certain works be put in an exhibition, and so on.

In responsible journalism, it’s not good enough to say that you are “being careful” not to be improperly influenced by conflicts of interest. Even the perception of conflicts of interest must be avoided. I’d argue that the same ethical principle should apply to museums. A curator cannot convincingly claim to be objective if a substantial share of the bill for his show is being picked up by a commercially interested party.

The blurring of lines between nonprofit museums and commercial interests is a growing and troubling trend. It should be reversed.

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