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The Slippery Slope of Dealer Support for Museum Exhibitions

Jori Finkel‘s excellent NY Times “Arts & Leisure” article today, Museums Solicit Dealers’ Largess, brings to mind how much the Brooklyn Museum’s director, Arnold Lehman, was criticized for asking dealers to become patrons of the benefit gala for the highly controversial “Sensation” show, drawn from the Young British Artists collection of Charles Saatchi. What to many seemed unseemly eight years ago is now far outstripped by current practices that, pre-Finkel, received little scrutiny.

To put in perspective dealer support for the Takashi Murakami show at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the Richard Prince show at the Guggenheim Museum, it’s worth going back to what I wrote in Art in America magazine about the controversy over dealer support for Brooklyn’s “Sensation” show in a January 2000 article, Brooklyn Hangs Tough:

Perhaps the most damning criticism of Brooklyn has been the suggestion that it was too dependent on funds from those who stood to profit from “Sensation,” thereby sacrificing its public mission to commercial interests….Of the 38 dealers contacted by Lehman to be patrons of the “Sensation” gala, several purchased blocks of tickets for the benefit dinner, including Larry Gagosian, who paid $10,000 for a table. “It was a no-brainer,” explained Gagosian, who represents Damien Hirst and Jenny Saville, two artists in the show.

Gagosian, who considers Saatchi “one of my best friends,” told A.i.A. that he had also recently spent $10,000 to support a gala at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and he had split with two other dealers the entire cost of a recent lavish Guggenheim Museum dinner in New York.

“This seems like normal art-world business as I know it,” commented the dealer. “It’s just common sense. If I can afford to be helpful, it’s a win-win situation: It helps the institution and it helps the artist. I don’t think it contaminates anything. They’re not doing the show based on the $10,000 I gave them.” He added that he never contributes “direct exhibition support” to museums and that he does not believe that “Sensation” will have “any impact, negative or positive” on the market for the artists’ works. Potential purchasers “already knew these artists,” he asserted.

Lehman said that other dealers who supported the gala included Luhring Augustine (representing Rachel Whiteread), Lehmann Maupin (representing Tracey Emin) and Sperone Westwater (no artists in “Sensation”). “Not one dealer did anything but buy tickets” to the gala, according to Lehman. “I had asked if some dealers would help [in other ways] and they didn’t.”

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. Maybe Arnold Lehman, in soliciting dealer support, was merely a few years ahead of his time.

an ArtsJournal blog