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The Launch of Haunch of Venison: Museums Go Commercial

New York’s new commercial gallery has some major museums in the bag.

Memo to the Albright-Knox Gallery, Art Gallery of Ontario, Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum, Smith College Museum, Blanton Museum, Rose Art Museum, Neuberger Museum, Montclair Art Museum, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Nasher Collection and Berkeley Art Museum:

What are you thinking?

The above-listed American museums, not to mention the Tate in London, and the Kröller-Müller in Otterlo, have lent their prestigious imprimaturs, along with significant artworks, to the inaugural exhibition—Abstract Expressionism—A World Elsewhere—at the New York branch of the Haunch of Venison contemporary art gallery network, which is owned by Christie’s International. (Other HOV branches are in London, Berlin, Zurich.)

In her NY Times review last week, Roberta Smith called HOV’s maiden voyage in New York, “a sometimes beautiful but absurdly unnecessary exhibition.” It opens big, with monumental works by such luminaries as Kline, de Kooning and David Smith, then peters out somewhat in the back rooms, with a few small-scale gems such as a Pollock enamel on parchment, “Number 19, 1949,” from the Whitney’s collection; and one of my new passions, an untitled Krasner “Little Image” painting of 1949, on loan from a private collector, courtesy of Robert Miller Gallery.

Robert Fitzpatrick, HOV’s international managing director in charge of the New York gallery, told me when I visited on Tuesday that museums had agreed to participate in this gallery-promoting enterprise not only because it was a “drop-dead show,” but also because of their respect for its curator, David Anfam, and for Fitzpatrick himself, who was formerly director of the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. Their comfort level, he said, was increased by the fact that this was “not a commercial show.” All of its works, including those from private lenders and galleries, came in with loan agreements, not consignment-for-sale agreements.

But what if a visitor, on the understandable assumption that a commercial gallery might sell some of the art that it displays, actually does ask to buy something? HOV would then try to find another work for sale by that artist and would “handle that transaction,” according to Fitzpatrick.

This is certainly not the first time that museums have put their works and reputations on the line for commercial galleries. Sometimes, as in Wildenstein’s exhibition in New York of works from the collection of the hurricane-ravaged New Orleans Museum of Art, the gallery charges a fee to benefit a good cause.

The Metropolitan Museum previously lent its prestige and its art to Berry-Hill Galleries, which later had legal troubles of its own. The worst-case scenario is what happened at the formerly prestigious, now shuttered Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, where the Indianapolis Museum got drawn into a tawdry tale of a gallery gone wrong, with its loaned masterpiece temporarily locked in legal limbo. Nonprofit institutions should think more than twice before lending to for-profits.

But back to the HOV lane: Next up, I was told by the gallery’s chief curator Michael Rooks (another former museum man who also has the Chicago MCA on his résumé) is an exhibition of sculpture by considerably less celebrated names, about a third of whom are represented by the gallery. The rest will come from other dealers, who will split the sale commissions. HOV will also be Christie’s private-sale headquarters for contemporary and modern works, including those that fail to sell at auction.

Do museums really want to jumpstart this engine?

For more details on this dealer/auction-house hybrid, see Alexandra PeersChristie’s Morphs Into a Dealer, published in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. It includes a slideshow of some of the works now on display.

an ArtsJournal blog