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Single-Collector Museum Shows: CultureGrrl’s Seven Recommended Ethical Guidelines

In its first annual meeting tweeting, the Association of Art Museum Directors revealed on its AAMDIndy Twitter page that it was contemplating “clear protocols and guidelines” for “exhibition of private collections in museums” (likely inspired, in part, by the New Museum’s recent controversial “Skin Fruit” show of Dakis Joannou‘s contemporary collection).

Given the usually slow pace of AAMD’s deliberations on such matters, I doubt we’ll see such guidelines any time soon. And in light of AAMD’s previous pronouncements, I have little doubt that when they’re finally (if ever) issued, the guidelines will enumerate issues that institutions should carefully consider in mounting single-collector shows, but won’t lay down stringent rules that the association’s members must follow.

With the problematic aspects of some specific exhibitions in mind, let me enumerate what I believe should be seven non-negotiable requirements for granting a private collector’s trove the coveted Museum Seal-of-Approval:

Curatorial control of how works are displayed and explicated. This is the museum’s show, not the collector’s. The collector’s knowledge and suggestions may be useful, but the museum’s own professional experts must rule.

A firm commitment, preferably in writing, that works will not be sold off the walls. Under no circumstances should a museum exhibition morph into a presale exhibition, with value of the collection enhanced by the museum’s imprimatur. That said, if a collector pleads that he really needs the money, how can a museum be strict about holding him to a no-sale commitment? (That thought crossed my mind in connection with the the Joannou show, which coincided with Greece’s economy’s going into freefall. I have no knowledge, I should emphasize, of any changes in the Athens-based industrialist’s personal fortunes.)

No pay-to-play: Museums should not accept financial support from the collector that is either directly or indirectly related to the show of his works. By “indirectly,” I mean, for example, a donation made contemporaneously with the show to support the general operations of the museum. Independent funding is, I believe, essential, to avoid the perception that the museum’s galleries are for sale or that providing a donation along with loaned art gives a collector an inside track for an exhibition devoted to his holdings.

A strong preference for a collector who is known as a keeper, not a trader. Some collectors are clearly in it for the long haul and have every intention of eventually giving their holdings to a museum—whether an existing one or a museum-of-one’s-own. The collector who is granted a museum show should be known as public-spirited, not profit-driven.

No single-collector shows of the holdings of museum trustees, unless most or all of the works in the show are promised to the museum. A board members’ insider status necessarily imposes obligations and limitations because of the need to avoid any real or perceived conflicts-of-interest, self-dealing or favoritism. It is because of Dakis Joannou’s status as a trustee of the New Museum that I believe “Skin Fruit” should never have happened.

The show should be on the same level of quality, scholarship and presentation as other exhibitions at the museum. The museum shouldn’t present a mixed-bag assemblage of the great and not-so-great. That would be flattering to the collector’s vanity but damaging to the museum’s aura of authority.

All of this should be done with complete transparency. There must be no doubt in the minds of the public that the show is being done in the right manner for the right reasons.

Even if these conditions are scrupulously adhered to, shows of private collections that are not promised to the museum should be mounted sparingly, if at all. The most satisfying museum shows tend to be those in which carefully selected works, gathered from a wide variety of sources, are studied, installed and explicated by museum curators—the professionals who are best qualified for those tasks by their scholarly knowledge, training and experience.

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