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Pay-to-Play? Maezawa Bankrolls Brooklyn Museum Show of His $110.5-Million Basquiat

Should a museum accept money from a private collector to show a work (or works) from his personal collection? Unless the work in question has been promised to the museum, such arrangements reek of pay-to-play, even if the collector’s motives are believed to be altruistic.

What are we to think, then, of the deal that will bring this record-breaking auction star to the Brooklyn Museum for a fleeting month-and-a-half “spotlight presentation”?

Basquiat, “Untitled,” 1982, $110.5 million in May 2017 at Sotheby’s
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s the credit line for One Basquiat, Jan. 26-Mar. 11:

“One Basquiat” and surrounding public programming have been made possible by collector Yusaku Maezawa.

Maezawa, as you will remember, set a new auction record for any work by an American artist when he bid $98 million ($110.5 million with buyer’s premium) for the 1982 Basquiat, against an estimate “in excess of $60 million” at Sotheby’s May 18 Contemporary sale. In its exultant press release, the auction house stated that the vibrantly scrawled skull would “eventually be housed in a museum based in Mr. Maezawa’s hometown of Chiba, Japan.”

Maybe so. But collectors’ plans have been known to change. There’s nothing to prevent Maezawa from changing course, reselling the painting with value added from what is said to be a “world tour,” debuting in Brooklyn. (It has not yet been announced where the painting’s next stops will be or whether Maezawa will pay for those displays and related public programming, as he is doing for Brooklyn.)

In the Brooklyn show’s press release, the museum’s director, Anne Pasternak, pronounced herself to be “extremely grateful for Mr. Maezawa’s generosity.”

Yusaku Maezawa
Image from his Twitter feed

For his part, Maezawa pronounced himself “thrilled to be sending Basquiat’s masterpiece home to Brooklyn. It is my hope that through the exhibition and extensive programming accompanying it, the young people of the borough will be inspired by their local hero, just as he has inspired so many of us around the world.”

In response to my queries, Fatima Jones Kafele, the Brooklyn Museum’s director of public relations, said that the idea for the show “came from a conversation Anne and Amy Cappellazzo [chairman of Sotheby’s Fine Art Division] had about the work. Amy asked if the museum would like to show it, knowing Mr. Maezawa’s interest in young people’s seeing it.”

In Sotheby’s online essay lionizing Maezawa after the sale, Cappellazzo extolled him as “an incredibly brave, innovative and passionate collector who is not bound by convention. His vision is all his own—guided by his instinct, sensibility and eye for quality. His approach to building a collection is organic and transcends typical boundaries, like geographical origin or historical period. The results are impressive and represent collecting at the highest level.”

The subtext of this fawning is: If you pay an outsized record price at Sotheby’s, you can expect the auction house to heap praise upon you for your brilliant connoisseurship and sagacity. Cappellazzo’s campaign to arrange museum placements for Maezawa’s purchase is, on one level, a Sotheby’s marketing ploy to attract more money-no-object bidders who may crave similar praise and publicity.

In my email to the Brooklyn Museum’s spokesperson, I asked the pay-to-play question:

Many museums feel that it’s not appropriate to allow private collectors to bankroll shows of their own works, because those shows may morph into presale exhibitions. They also want to avoid the appearance (if not the reality) that private collectors can “buy” opportunities for museum display of works they own. What is your response to such concerns?

Here’s her answer:

The museum felt that the artistic merit of the work, the very limited opportunity that the public has had to see it since it was created, the Museum’s extensive ties with the artist, and the sincerity of the lender all made sense. This is an important Basquiat at an important time. The lender also expressed an interest in young people’s seeing the work and we are in a very great position to do that through our education and school group programs.

Nothing wrong with that, if the museum funds the show without accepting money from its owner.

Here’s what I wrote about collector-funders at the time of the fracas over the New Museum’s 2010 Skin Fruit show of the collection of its trustee, Dakis Joannou (which, after much prodding, the museum told me was mounted using general museum program funds, not Joannou’s own money):

Clear guidelines are needed to preclude collectors from paying museums to mount shows of their private troves, to prevent museum displays from morphing into presale exhibitions.

If the Brooklyn Museum feels “One Basquiat” is truly worth doing, it should fund the show the old-fashioned way, not by relying on the megabucks owner’s largess.

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