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MASS MoCA’s Kiefer Deal: Single-Collector Exhibition on Steroids (plus what’s next for the Hall Collection and for Joseph Thompson)

Joseph Thompson, director of MASS MoCA, inside the "Velimir Chlebnikov" pavilion at new Kiefer installation Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Joseph Thompson, director of MASS MoCA, inside the “Velimir Chlebnikov” pavilion at the new 15-year Anselm Kiefer installation
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I’ve been an enthusiastic admirer of the inspired, resourceful stewardship of MASS MoCA under its director, Joseph Thompson, ever since I wrote a rave review in the Wall Street Journal when the cutting-edge contemporary art institution opened in 1999.

But as you may have guessed from my Tuesday WSJ piece on the opening of MASS MoCA’s new Anselm Kiefer pavilion, I was wowed by the art but had mixed feelings about how it got there.

At the end of my Kiefer review, I noted that the North Adams, MA, museum “essentially relinquish[ed] a portion of MASS MoCA’s property and curatorial control to a private collector, who could theoretically capitalize on the imprimatur of the museum if he decides to sell works from his collection to benefit himself or his Hall Art Foundation. (Mr. Hall told me that’s ‘extremely unlikely.’)”

Here’s how Thompson addressed this subject, during our wide-ranging conversation (also quoted here), after I visited the new installation:

The space [for the Kiefer installation] belongs to the Hall Foundation, in effect, and so does the art….

There’s no secret quid pro quo in this arrangement with the Hall Art Foundation. It’s a very clear transparent arrangement, in which we provide space and time, the Hall Art Foundation provided capital resources to make the renovations and are lending the art, and they pay the operating expenses.

Once the 15 years [of the art-loan agreement] are up, it will be extended if everyone thinks it’s a good idea. If it stops, the art goes back to them, the building and its improvements remain with the museum.

The permanent improvements to MASS MoCA’s physical plant, bankrolled by collectors Andrew and Christine Hall, were considerable: They paid for the renovation of an old concrete water cistern on the museum’s sprawling former industrial site, and topped it with a steel addition to accommodate the height of “Velimir Chlebnikov” (pictured above):

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

They also extended the roadway past the building to connect it to the W. Main Street entrance, where they added a new gate:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

And they funded the removal of a large oil tank nearby, which “was costly to get rid of,” according to Thompson.

That said, all single-collector shows of works that have not been promised to the exhibiting museum raise questions about curatorial control and the possible exploitation of the museum’s imprimatur to enhance the resale value of the collector’s holdings. There are, however, mitigating circumstances that make this deal less problematic than it might seem at a more traditional museum: MASS MoCA is not a collecting institution, so long-term, semi-permanent loans are its closest equivalent to the donation of works.

What’s more, its array of still unused buildings gives it seemingly inexhaustible space (some 200,000 square feet, yet to go) for the presentation of diverse collections and individual viewpoints. “We are not giving up a single square foot of space to do these projects,” Thompson told me. “We make our curatorial statements in our [main building’s] galleries and on our [performance] stages.”

Unlike some other financial traders, Hall, a famously astute British-born commodities trader in oil and natural gas, is not known for flipping art.

The collector said this to me in an interview on the day before I visited MASS MoCA’s new pavilion:

With our agreement with MASS MoCA, we have some restrictions on any reselling of work and frankly, when you see the work, you’ll realize it cannot be easily resold….Providing that my financial circumstances permit, it’s our ultimate intention that all our artwork will go to our foundation. I’m not, at this point of my life, trying to buy and sell art to supplement my income.

What he is trying to do is find ways to make his collection more publicly accessible, through a by-appointment exhibition facility in Reading, VT, a multi-exhibition arrangement at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, and the renovation of a former monastery near Hanover, Germany (previously owned by artist Georg Baselitz), which Hall hopes will open in about two years for the display of more works from his 5,000-piece trove.

And what about Joe Thompson’s future plans? I’ve always thought that given his strong art-and-business background, and his demonstrated brilliance as a builder, fundraiser and art impresario, he could, if he wanted to, advance to a more nationally prominent institution. But in all our conversations over the years, he seemed fully committed to staying the course at the place that he had founded and nurtured.

So I did a double-take after I asked, at the end of our talk, if he’s still committed to staying put. Here’s what he said:

Who knows?  For a while I couldn’t leave if I wanted to, because the institution was too fragile. I think the institution is definitely durable enough to endure a transition now….

We’ve begun to get our financial foundations under us, with a beginning endowment of $15 million, which we’ve raised over the last four or five years. And our commercial real estate income provides a steady 20% or so of our budget. Our audience has grown from 80,000 to 90,000 a year [during the first years after it opened] to about 150,000 this year.

So I don’t know. We’ll see!

I do know (from other sources) that he’s been approached by other institutions. (I don’t know which ones.) There’s another MOCA across the country that I think could benefit from his talents. And (this is pure speculation on my part) is the Museum of Modern Art’s Glenn Lowry really going to want to oversee yet another massive construction project?

For now, though, Thompson is talking with other museums and collectors about Hall-like collaborations for repurposing other unused buildings on MASS MoCA’s campus.

Thompson told me:

We’re working on a few really exciting projects that are of equal caliber and importance and monumentality. I just think that having multiple voices here, each revealing what they think is important and interesting, and working deeply with artists, is a fantastic thing and a unique opportunity here.

Although MASS MoCA has touted its Hall hall as “a new model for museum alliances,” there aren’t too many other places that have both the space and the enterprising spirit to pull off such ambitious undertakings.

an ArtsJournal blog