Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Ethics in the Air (Museum-Market Coziness Edition)

Just as we've been all over the ethics of journalism and criticism in the arts, The Art Newspaper presents a very level-headed and carefully worded primer on the issues of ethics in museums' role in advancing the financial value of art work they exhibit. Written by Adrian Ellis (director of AEA Consulting), the piece outlines the fairly well-established general best practices for the staff and board members of museums:
[M]useums need, axiomatically, to be able to make decisions about acquisitions, whether bought or donated, and about the choice of works to borrow and display, free from pressure from third parties who may stand to gain from any increase in their value or the value of related works.

Obviously, there may be difficulties when those third parties are also responsible for the governance of the museum itself: that is, when they are also first parties. Museum boards are unsurprisingly filled with collectors who should, and usually do, formally recuse themselves from decisions that are likely to have an impact on the value of works that they own; most obviously, the decision to seek to borrow and display a work for a specific show, or the decision to acquire or de-accession works that have a relationship to their own holdings.
Ellis illustrates the issues with a good example of why this is important:
[I]f the Museum of Modern Art, New York, (MoMA) buys a Lawrence Weiner painting, then that’s good news if you happen to own one. And the more closely related your painting is to the MoMA’s, then the better news it is—most obviously, if it is painted during the same period; of the same quality; in the same medium; and the same size or bigger—the greater the impact of MoMA’s decision to acquire it will be on the price of your work. All other things being equal—which, of course, they rarely are—the greater the standing of the museum, then the greater the impact of its actions on the value of affected works.
Where it gets more nuanced, however, is where it gets more interesting and more akin to the kinds of issues that we discussed regarding critics. Ellis summarized two such "grayer" issues as such:
[S]hould museum staff be free to advise board members (or other collectors) on what they should be acquiring themselves, and should those board members who are also active collectors be free to acquire works informed, in effect, by the insider knowledge that they are making the same bets or judgments as the museum on whose board they serve?
[A]rt museums tend to object when a work on loan is “sold off their walls”. And when the whole exhibition is sold off they are seriously upset. Collectors benefit from a loan to a museum when the work’s value is enhanced and the loaned work is subsequently sold at a higher price than would have been possible without the provenance and public relations boost that the exhibition loan furnishes.
Examples cited of this include Saatchi selling works from the blockbuster Sensation exhibitions that rocked London and New York, "Alan and Simone Hartman’s collection of Chinese Jades displayed at the Boston Museum of Art in 2003-04 and subsequently sold at auction," and most recently Acquavella's acquisition of a contemporary Chinese collection after it had been shown at the Louisiana Museum (Denmark) and Israel Museum (Jerusalem). Of course, as the author acknowledges, the circumstances affecting any collector's need to sell their collection can and will change, but Ellis argues that museums must get "firmer assurances about intentions than they currently do" to avoid being played.

Clearly, in this age where collectors are calling more and more of the shots, that's easier to say than accomplish. Moreover, with precedents like Eli Broad's decision to change his mind about donating his collection on the eve of LACMA's grand opening of a museum named after him (and some of my friends who work in museums are still reeling from that), the degree of trust between collectors and museums is perhaps seeing some strain. Still, I have to side with Ellis and note, in particular with the newer museum trustees and board members, it's important that museums are clear about what the ethics guidelines are/should be with regards to using museums as marketing tools. Let the bad apples serve as cautionary tales and not be seen as the "way things are done." The museum's long-term reputation is more important than the momentary gain of bending the rules.

Labels: art museums, ethics


OpenID artphile said...

Thanks for the post Ed. I've worked in museums and these "gray" areas are often the areas of greatest conflict. Funding is a huge issue for most museums (unless you have the Getty Trust behind you.) The exhibitions and acquisitions cannot be funded through admission fees or grants. Curators are often the first person to make contact with potential donors as they research collectors in the region. So it's not surprising when that donor pledges to fund an acquisition and then asks to do "research" with the curator.

Of course there are multiple committees that review and approve final acquisitions and deaccessioned works, but again they are full of other collectors. It is up to the museum director and chief curator to stand up for the museums reputation and make sure their trustee/collectors don't take advantage of them. Your example of Eli Broad is dead on. It's going to take LACMA a long time to recover and it really tarnished one of the most significant art events to happen in LA in recent years.

4/16/2008 09:39:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't read the whole article, but in Ed's post, this jumped out at me:
"Of course, as the author acknowledges, the circumstances affecting any collector's need to sell their collection can and will change, but Ellis argues that museums must get "firmer assurances about intentions than they currently do" to avoid being played. "

The intentions of collectors, in their dealings with museums, can be one or more (usually a combination) of the following things:
- to enhance the value of their own collections
- to share the wealth (to share the experience of art with others who can't afford to own it themselves (this includes educational and cultural goals)
- to be a power player in their city government or cultural affairs milieu and/or impress their friends and business colleagues
- to assuage any guilt they may have for being corporate raiders or otherwise exploiters of labor (I doubt this one is very common, but I'm throwing it in on the off-chance that some of them have a conscience about such things)

I could on, but basically there are several reasons for collectors being involved in museums, and each reason has its positive and negative interpretations, or its altruistic and its ego-puffing connotations. Probably both sides of that equation are in play at any given time. People are more likely to be altruistic if there are also benefits to themselves. People with large incomes are more likely to donate money or objects to non-profit organizations if they get a good tax deduction for it. Etc. Does this make them hypocrites? I don't think so. But we're talking about people who have a amassed a good amount of money; they don't turn off that "captain of industry" or "hedge fund manager" part of their brain when they serve on a museum board and suddenly become a social worker who has dedicated her life to helping people for very little pay. There are always going to be inherent conflicts of interest when museums depend on individual donors or corporate sponsorship rather than government support.


4/16/2008 10:21:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to change the subject, but under capitalism, of course the people with the money get to decide things. If we had a government that was a bit more socialistic (like, say, one that prioritized education and health care for all its citizens over corporate welfare and bailouts....).. oh, don't get me started.

Oriane, another bitter voter for Obama

ps How do you make a small fortune in the art world?

Start out with a large fortune.

4/16/2008 10:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

There's an easy solution to this: withdraw federal funding from museums that exhibit or collect work by living artists. These issues of who is cozying up to whom become a lot less troubling when everyone is acting on their own behalf and not on behalf of the public, to the public's ostensible benefit, with the public's money. The collectors know where credibility for their works comes from, and would likely fill any funding gap themselves. Too, their actions would appear more obviously as self-service, and they would have to take additional care to avoid turning the institutions they support into vanity galleries (LACMA, I'm looking at you here), thus squandering the credibility that they're trying to purchase.

The Rubell Collection recently had a Derek Jarman film series run opposite their exhibition of Hernan Bas, likening the two bodies of work. Bas is overrated and Jarman gets on my nerves, but the comparison was apt, and the pairing was more interesting than any comparable subsidiary programming that had appeared at a museum in the area in ages. If Bas's critical fortunes reverse, the RFC takes the hit. This is as it should be. The private sector seems to be able to handle this just fine.

I've asked this before, but what distinguishes these incestuous museum boards, the impact of public acquisition on private holdings, and similar phenomena from any other kind of corporatism? When these deals go down I don't think "conflict of interest" so much as "Halliburton." It's parasitism.

4/16/2008 01:06:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

There's an easy solution to this: withdraw federal funding from museums that exhibit or collect work by living artists.

How would this solve or prevent what happened with the Alan and Simone Hartman collection?

4/16/2008 01:15:00 PM  
Blogger John Hovig said...

Franklin - Economists and political scientists already define a "corporation" (or "incorporation") as any legal entity of multiple individuals, including not only business corporations, but also museums, labor unions, membership societies and other non-profit organizations. Any organization that can leverage power and money more effectively than an individual must be considered a corporation.

4/16/2008 01:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Ed - It wouldn't; of course, nothing seems to be preventing it now. I'm not so worked up over those jades anyway. The MFA's ability to affect the market for 18th C. Chinese jades is proportionally quite a lot smaller than a museum's ability to affect the prices on the work of a living artist. They all got theirs - Rogers looked like an ass, the MFA looks like it got suckered, and fortunately for them they have a lot of credibility to waste.

Living artists are a different story. If I suddenly acquired a museum following, prices for my work could rise thirty times. That would be great for me, but I don't think you should be forced to pay for it. The idea that a museum, by doing so, is acting in the public interest - your interest - is repulsive, and I'm talking about my own work here. You can only imagine how I feel about the choices contemporary art curators typically make. This puts me in a pretty sad position of principle regarding my art career, because if I refuse public monies I'm disadvantaging myself against artists who don't. Sigh.

Hovig - My complaint here concerns corporate welfare, not the mere existence of corporations.

4/16/2008 02:00:00 PM  
Blogger John Hovig said...

Franklin - I missed the word "other" in your original comment above ("any other kind of corporatism"). I thought it needed to be said that of course there's no distinction, because these organizations are corporations like any other. But now I see that you're already taking for granted that it's corporatism by definition, and therefore asking, "Where's the outrage?"

4/16/2008 03:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Corporatism is the merger of state and corporate power, as Mussolini put it. I'd like to know what differentiates, say, the Broad/LACMA deal and the public subsidy of oil exploration, from the standpoint of policy.

4/16/2008 04:21:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

American museums have always had these issues -- going right back to the robber baron days (although, in those days, no one considered conflict of interest to be a conflict).

The key ethical point for museums is to exhibit only what the curators believe is excellent and important. I'm less worried about board members making a profit than about board members "suggesting" what the museum should show.

4/16/2008 04:26:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

I thought museums were for the people - as a role model - and as such withdrawing federal funding might imperil the lifeline to real culture that the underclasses so desperately need to get ahead in life.

Personally I read the Robb Report - it gives me The Gift, that keep son giving.

Baking chocolate?

Thank you, thank you very much.

4/16/2008 06:55:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

From the NYT:

If this all sounds a lot like playing with dolls, you’re right. The core, most passionate audience for the Sims has become school-age girls. Across many years and many cultures, girls have long been the demographic group that most gravitates toward playing at “real life.” (Boys, meanwhile, with their footballs and toy soldiers, as with their video games, have usually played at inhabiting some external, aspirational identity.)


4/16/2008 07:37:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

"People have still not found out how to use museums creatively for the betterment of us all, young and old."

"It seems certain that collecting is at least as old as culture."

"The word mouseion in Greek means a place or home for the Muses."

"Eventually the center of Rome became a museum in itself, a place of display for the plundered objects of beauty of an earlier time, for a series of pictorial representations of historical events; and, in the Forum of Augustus, was a hall of fame, a series of statues of the creators of Rome from Aeneas on down."

“The early museums were inextricably linked to the evolution of the Church as a stabilizer in uncertain times of violence, as a communicator of tradition and culture, of art and aesthetics, of philosophy and a sense of beauty and taste. The concept of the great art collections of medieval times originated in and from the Church and spread, through its influence as a creator of taste, into the princely families, first of Italy, then of neighboring countries.”

“In 1759 the British Museum, the greatest of its kind in the world, was opened to the public.”

“In the original program of the organizing committee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, dated January 4, 1870, it was stated that the purpose of the association was to afford ‘to our whole people free and ample means for innocent and refined enjoyment, and also supplying the best facilities for practical instruction and for the cultivation of pure taste in all matters connected with the arts.’”

“Through the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of this one museums seem to have drifted into two positions which gradually became separate, almost polarized. On the one hand certain museums came to exist purely as storehouses, as catch-alls, elegant as they might have been. The average historical society was a good, though often inelegant example.”

“The other attitude, the contrast to the attic or genteel storehouse, was that a museum was indeed a practicing laboratory or an educational center.”

“The great art museums of our country were virtually all constructed during the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth. Mostly fashioned in a Prix de Rome tradition of pantheonic grandeur, these stone temples, harking back to a Roman rather than a Greek tradition of purpose, were created as storehouses for displays and for the promotion of civic pride as well as the stimulation of a kind of ostentatious philanthropy.”

“Fortunately the dangers of the bequest requiring everything of the donor’s to be shown at all times, a feature of the turn of the century, have now been thoroughly exposed, and the conceit discredited.”

(from: “The Sacred Grove: Essays on Museums by Dillon Ripley (1969))

Through history museums have represented many things; displays of power, conveyors of spirit, propaganda machines for religions and states. The Roman concept of the museum had to do with looted treasure and displaying the power of the figurehead. During medieval times, the church used art collections to dramatize religious texts and to convert the masses. The museum structure that we are most familiar with originated in the Victorian era, and the founders of these nineteenth century museums wanted them to educate the masses or make them genteel. The METs original mission statement (see above) was certainly condescending. Therefore, museums never entirely belonged to the public. In fact more often than not they were meant to indoctrinate or transform the public in accordance with a very specific agenda.

4/16/2008 09:21:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Museums are cemataries


4/17/2008 04:13:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

“Give me a museum and I'll fill it.”
Pablo Picasso

“Museums are the cemeteries of the arts”
Alphonse de Lamartine quotes (French Poet, Writer and Statesman, 1790-1869)

Museums: cemeteries!... Identical, surely, in the sinister promiscuity of so many bodies unknown to one another. Museums: public dormitories where one lies forever beside hated or unknown beings. Museums: absurd abattoirs of painters and sculptors ferociously slaughtering each other with color-blows and line-blows, the length of the fought-over walls!
F.T. Marinetti

“An ideal museum show would be a mating of Brideshead Revisited with House & Garden. provoking intense and pleasurable nostalgia for a past that none of its audience has had.”
Robert Hughes

“They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum and they charged all the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em. Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone? They've paved paradise and put up a parking lot.


4/17/2008 04:28:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

You're so vain
You probably think this song is about you
You're so vain
I'll bet you think this song is about you
Don't you? Don't you?


4/17/2008 04:33:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Well, I hear you went up to Saratoga
And your horse naturally won
Then you flew your Lear jet up to Nova Scotia
To see the total eclipse of the sun
Well, you're where you should be all the time
And when you're not, you're with
Some underworld spy or the wife of a close friend
Wife of a close friend, and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, charged its financial director with embezzling more than $775,000

4/17/2008 04:42:00 AM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

Regardless of my pseudo history, I love museums when they have suggested admissions. When they turn into the MoMA and charge $20 mandatory entrance fees, they can go suck it. I like the quotes about museums as semiterries (you will have to excuse me, I am new to this hip misspelling thing) zip but you lost me on your last two comments (except fot the part about Bilbao). I just wanted to make the point that the museum as a benevolent purveyor of aesthetic values is a nineteenth century creation and that donor's have always tried to control what the public sees.

4/17/2008 07:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Uh, Bjork was not the first to sing Paved Paradise. Anyone remember Joni Mitchell?


4/17/2008 07:20:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Sometimes Carly Simon is just Carly Simon.

I only go to the met now unless someone comes to town and wants to pay for shit. I see enough museum quality contemporary art shows courtesy of nobliesse oblige {sic} that going to say, the Whitney is redundant in concept if not form.

Some people pay. Some people use the force.

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4/17/2008 07:54:00 AM  

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