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Art Museums as Shakedown Artists: NY Times Front-Page Report on Dealers’ Support for Exhibitions

If museum exhibitions of contemporary art are increasingly looking like extensions of the commercial gallery system, it’s because they are.

Those who have paid attention to the funding credits for museums’ contemporary shows during the last 10 years have seen a troubling increase in dealer support for displays of the artists whom they represent.

What was news to me, until I read Robin Pogrebin‘s detailed Page One report in today’s NY Times, is not that museums are increasingly seeking such support, but that some dealers are now openly speaking out against “the brazenness” of this expectation, in the words of Lawrence Luhring of Luhring Augustine.

Robin Pogrebin

Robin Pogrebin

This is not the first time the Times has examined this hot-button issue. Jori Finkel, in her 2007 investigation—Museums Solicit Dealers’ Largess—noted that “for many in the art world such gifts raise an issue: Should nonprofit art museums accept money from commercial galleries with a clear financial stake in the artist’s career, and in some cases in the artworks on display? More generally, can the willingness of galleries to pony up subtly influence what a museum sets out to exhibit?”

Jori Finkel

Jori Finkel

Just last April, in her data-driven piece for The Art Newspaper (Almost One Third of Solo Shows in US Museums Go to Artists Represented by Five Galleries), Julia Halperin covered a lot of the same ground revisited in today’s Times piece. Pogrebin quoted from Halperin’s piece, but failed to link to it in the Times’ online version. That version ends with a correction for a Page-One blooper in the hardcopy, which identified Jeffrey Deitch as “former director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art,” instead of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. (Sorry, Michael Govan!)

From some dealers’ perspectives, it seems that museums’ “requests” are starting to feel more like shakedowns. From my perspective of covering museum-gallery relations for several decades, I wrote this in my 2007 post reacting to Finkel’s report:

Dealers’ kicking in cash to support museum catalogues for shows devoted to gallery artists has been a longstanding practice. But direct support for exhibitions from self-interested salesmen is far over the line that should separate the nonprofit museum world from the commercial world. It’s a situation rife with unacceptable conflict of interest, whatever museum officials may say about how the money doesn’t actually influence their decisions.

This is not just a blurring of the lines; it’s an erasure.

And in a 2012 post reacting to comments made (in response to my question) at an all-star American Federation of Arts panel on museum funding (including the Tom Campbell, the Metropolitan Museum’s director, and Ari Wiseman, deputy director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, among others), I further explored the conflict-of-interest issue.

I then wrote:

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….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.

L to R at AFA panel on museum funding: Tom Campbell, Met; Maxwell Anderson (then director, Dallas Museum of Art), Ari Wiseman, Guggenheim Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

L to R at AFA panel on museum funding: Tom Campbell, Metropolitan Museum; Max Anderson, then director, Dallas Museum of Art; Ari Wiseman, Guggenheim
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Instead, museums seem to be doubling down on a bad bet. They are gambling with the public trust by encouraging pay-to-play, contrary to the warning of this statement in the Association of Art Museum Directors’ 2011 guidelines in Professional Practices in Art Museums:

The museum should avoid any fundraising practices that could damage the community’s trust or its respect for the institution.

If there were ever an issue that should awaken the sleeping watchdogs at AAMD, this is it. So far, the closest that AAMD has gotten to addressing this growing conflict-of-interest morass is its 2007 statement on Revenue Generation: An Investment in the Public Service of Art Museums. In typical AAMD fashion, it phrases its concerns about issues raised by new funding sources as questions, not as stipulations.

Museum directors are encouraged to “weigh the following”:

—Does a prospective revenue stream adversely affect public perception of the museum?

—Are there legal or ethical issues associated with a prospective revenue stream that can be anticipated by the museum?

When it comes to accepting (let alone soliciting) dealer largess for shows of gallery artists, the answers to the above questions are a no-brainer—“Yes” and “Yes.” It’s time for AAMD to finally do something about it.

an ArtsJournal blog