Talk about “damning with faint praise”!
Philippe de Montebello, after bowing out gracefully, at the end of his long, legendary reign as the Metropolitan Museum’s director, has rarely (if ever) allowed himself the latitude to pass judgment on his successors’ actions.
So hats off to Robin Pogrebin of the NY Times for eliciting a barely veiled (and needed) corrective from the usually discreet PdM regarding Max Hollein‘s questionable decision to acquire the “transformative promised gift [in the words of the Met’s press release] of some 220 works [96 paintings, 124 drawings] by Philip Guston (1913–1980) from the personal collection of Musa Mayer, the artist’s daughter.”
“Transformative” it is, but arguably for the wrong reasons. If de Montebello didn’t already know about the tight strings attached to the Guston gift, he presciently foresaw them, as evidenced by Robin’s report of her interchange with him:
Told about the Guston donation, Philippe de Montebello, the longtime director of the Met, called it “a great gift,” as long as “the numbers and space required to show the works do not create a serious imbalance in the presentation of postwar art.”
“The numbers” do, in fact, seem disproportionate, in the context of the Met’s holdings of other (arguably more important) artists from Guston’s era. Mark Rothko, for one, is represented by 17 works in the Met’s collection. Judging from the museum’s online database (where you can see the images of its Guston holdings) the artist’s representation, prior to the new windfall, was relatively meager in both number (16—mostly drawings) and quality. According to the website, all of those Met-owned Gustons are currently “not on view.”
Quoting Guston’s delighted daughter, the press release only hints at the restrictive conditions to which the Met acceded, notwithstanding a provision in its Collections Management Policy (sometimes honored in the breach) that “the Museum generally does not accept restrictions on gifts; any exceptions require approval by the Board of Trustees.”
Here’s Musa Mayer’s fulsome expression of appreciation:
“That the Met—this amazing museum of world art—has agreed to prominently display [emphasis added] and permanently house Philip Guston’s work in the city where he lived and worked is a deeply moving commitment to his legacy.
But wait. There’s more! Robin’s Times article goes beyond what is divulged in the Met’s press release:
Under the terms of the gift, the Met has agreed to always keep about a dozen of the works on view in its new Modern and contemporary wing [my link, not the Times’]. “Significant parts of it will be on display almost all the time for the next half-century at least [emphasis added],” Mayer said.
What’s more, the deal comes with a $10 million sweetener—a gift “to establish The Philip Guston Endowment Fund, which will be used to support initiatives related to the collection, advance scholarship regarding Guston, and further the artist’s legacy.”
All of this should serve to significantly enhance the prestige and market value of hot-button works that very recently (rightly or wrongly) became too hot for major museums to handle until they took steps to “contextualize” the most transgressive images (involving the Ku Klux Klan).
And here’s the kicker: “Some work will remain available for sale through Guston’s gallery, Hauser & Wirth,” Pogrebin informs us. This suggests that Mayer’s generosity might have an element of financial self-interest, with some of her inherited holdings to be sold with the value-enhancing imprimatur of the Met’s Guston acquisition, which both affirms their importance and takes a lot of potentially competing works off the market.
As a longtime MetMuseum-ologist, I wondered whether there have been any other donor arrangements at the Met comparable to the Guston gambit. Ken Weine, the Met’s chief communications officer, said that “other general precedents of such art gifts” included the Walker Evans estate, the recent acquisition of the estate of African American Harlem photographer James Van Der Zee, and the Diane Arbus archive [my links, not his]. But unlike those, “this one also has a [financial] gift to support the study of his [Guston’s] art,” Weine noted. Ken described the Guston benefaction as “wonderful news,” which will provide “added momentum for the Tang Wing.”
He likened this to another gift, announced in 2013, that the Met had also described as “transformational”—the pledge by megacollector Leonard Lauder of 78 works, including 33 by Picasso, 17 by Braque, 14 by Gris, and 14 by Léger, accompanied by the establishment of a new Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art, to be bankrolled by a $22-million endowment, contributed by Lauder and other Met trustees and patrons.
That reminds me: I still need to give you my impressions of the sibling-rivalry showdown now on view in New York—at the Met (including many works from Leonard Lauder’s Cubist collection) and at the Neue Galerie—a temporary display devoted exclusively to the diverse collections of that museum’s co-founder, Ronald Lauder (everything from Greek and Roman antiquities to its customary fare—Austrian and German Expressionists)…
…not to mention this—Ronald’s collection of memorabilia (mostly posters) from the movie “Casablanca.” I guess he who pays the piper gets to call the tune (however off-key it may seem): “Play it again, Sam!”
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