Monday, August 24, 2009

Corporate Turnkey Exhibitions : Open Thread

Robin Pogrebin has penned an in-depth look in the New York Times at the growing trend of cash-strapped museums presenting exhibitions curated by corporations from their own collections. Called "turnkey exhibitions," they offer small or mid-sized museums the opportunity to present high-impact shows they could never afford on their own.

There are of course, some who object to this practice:
Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, said he would be unlikely to accept a show put together by a corporation in part because it supplants the role of the museum’s curators. “The reason the museum exists is to make exhibitions on its own,” he said. “You have people on staff who consider themselves to be historians with highly nuanced receptors, and it’s not healthy to duplicate that by hiring out to somebody else.”
And there's the perception that despite presenting quality shows that they could never afford to assemble on their own, the museums are not getting anywhere near as much out of the arrangements as the corporations are:

What museums need to be conscious of, art experts say, is creating the impression that these exhibitions enhance the value of corporate collections that might one day come to market. “A museum has to think very seriously about taking those shows,” said John Ravenal, president of the Association of Art Museum Curators and curator of modern and contemporary art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “The museum, by virtue of its stature and its public role, gives legitimacy or confers a certain kind of validity to these collections when it exhibits them.

“If the collection isn’t a promised gift to the museum, then there is the potential for the museum to be used to unwittingly increase the value of a collection, whether its individual or corporate.”

If a corporation is contributing funds to a museum that shows its collection, “then it looks as if the museum’s exhibition program is for sale,” Mr. Ravenal said. “They don’t want to look like they’re selling their reputation.”
Personally, I'm not sure how I feel about this trend. Some of the institutions that have signed-on are run by directors I have an immense amount of respect for, curatorially and administratively, meaning I trust their vision and I trust they're doing what they need to in the current climate to keep their museums and all their programming alive and serving their communities. Having said that, I do wonder where this might lead for the institutions' curators. Do they wind up just being assistants to the corporations' curators?
The curators at corporations and museums may be equally qualified in terms of expertise, art experts say, but their responsibilities differ. “The point of a corporate collection is to burnish the reputation of a corporation,” Mr. Ravenal said, and corporate curators are therefore “involved in that agenda.”
Museums claim they have found ways to navigate these tricky waters:
As for concerns that a bank would impose its curatorial tastes on the museum, [Lora S.] Urbanelli [director] of the Montclair Art Museum said Bank of America selected the works in the [“The Wyeths: Three Generations,” an exhibition of work by N. C., Andrew and Jamie Wyeth] show, but the museum had some say in their installation. “We were able to filter it through our own curatorial staff,” she said. “I don’t feel like we made any kind of compromises at all. If anything, they provided us with a wonderful opportunity — helped us to do something we would not have been able to do ourselves.”
I can imagine, as a curator knowing that needed budget cuts may eventually extend to your department, if not your job, that objecting too strongly to a turnkey exhibition that might generate just enough money to keep the exhibition afloat for another year is a dilemma of biblical proportions. Then again, there is a great deal to be said for being professional about such matters:
To be sure, importing a corporate-organized show might be expected to create tension between the curators at the company and those at the host museum. But Sergio Bessa, the director of curatorial and education programs at the Bronx Museum, said that his institution’s collaboration with JPMorgan “was very collegial,” and that the show gave the museum access to blue-chip artists.

“We saw an opportunity instead of a takeover,” he said. “I actually have quite a lot of respect for their vision. I was amazed: How did Chase get paintings by this painter and that painter?”
As someone hoping to sell work to many corporate collections, I am predisposed to thinking kindly of them, but I can honestly say that corporations' curators are indeed among the most knowledgeable and passionate curators out there, and most of the ones I know are delightful and fun to talk with about art in general. The biggest question for me in all this is one of disclosure. I do want to know when the exhibition I'm viewing is curated from a corporation's collection. What difference that might make to how I fell about it would vary of course, but I don't think it's a small matter. Fortunately most such exhibitions have no shortage of branding or sponsorship announcement opportunities for the lending corporation.

There was one thing noted in the Times article that I was intrigued by:
And Bank of America has lately gone further still, creating a roster of ready-made shows that it provides to museums at a nominal cost to them— essentially turnkey exhibitions. [emphasis mine]
At first I read that to mean the borrowing museums had to pay a small fee to receive the turnkey exhibitions. Curious about how much that might be, I search for info but only found the following. Bank of America's press release about the program states that there is no charge to museums:
Through its unique loaned exhibition program, the bank offers its art collection to museums throughout the country, free of charge, so they may expand their offerings for the benefit of their communities. [emphasis mine]
Perhaps the nominal cost is simply the museum's operating costs, meaning the corporation provides the work (including shipping and catalog materials, etc.) but they don't pay the museums overhead during the exhibition. I'm not sure entirely. Does any one know the details here?

Consider this an open thread on the corporate turnkey exhibition trend.

Labels: art museums, open thread


Blogger Kate said...

Throughout history, entities with money have swooped down in financially difficult times to "help" the public at large, always coming out all the more prosperous for it.

Corporations have infiltrated, and consequently influenced, so many areas of our lives where they were not previously welcome (such as academia), and it is disheartening to watch a gradual decline of principles to the point where what was previously unheard of becomes the norm, and no one questions it anymore. We seem to be at one of those points of transition.

It is hard to stand in judgement, as we are all making compromises to stay afloat in tough times, I suppose....

8/24/2009 09:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

A while back an art historian wrote along the same lines of his concern for the trend of the rise of the museums changing focus on exhibitions. Seeing the forte of the museum as 3 fold : preservation, educational, and lastly as accessibility, he feared we were moving too far into entertainment in the museum venue .

Seeing how the "block buster" exhibits in this city all end with an exit through the required trinket shop of trademarked goodies it seems the museum may really be changing its intent.

But isn't this all the same question of a Gallery vs an Exhibition? Collectors who donate their collection for a gallery mirror some of the same curatorial concerns as the corporate collection, but somehow, by the galleries permanence within the museum walls they seem to allow more for the museum to fulfill its "mandate". Otherwise the temporary nature of the block buster (corporate or not) seems to change completely our appreciation of the art works - moving from contextualized to simply content on the marquee as a must see. ?

8/24/2009 09:37:00 AM  
Blogger ruben said...

Museums at the end of the day needed to be run like any other corporation, business like and with strong financial resources.

Art is a business and in order to have Free Sudays at the Studio Museum of Harlem sponsored by Target, it is more important that a pretentious museum reputation. The fact that the general public is allowed free one day week is an important one.

There is such a double standard when it comes to this type of situation. Museums like to pretend that they are not whoring themselves to corporations but, at the end of the day, they are the best pimps when it comes to the donation time.

I mean, it is no diferent that when a gallery gets a an ''art collector'' who buys work at hte gallery to ''curate'' or select a piece for a show right?

The prostitution of art has always saved the day .
At the end of day most times, It all comes down to money. And Money without taste or a god eye , it is always questionable.

8/24/2009 11:10:00 AM  
Blogger Ariela Steif said...

This discussion seems to be exclusively centered on the dynamic between the museum and the corporation, but aren't we neglecting a third group -- namely, the public?

Corporations, with their often extraordinary wealth have amassed incredible art collections -- collections that the public at large would usually have a difficult time seeing. While individual works of art themselves can of course be bought and sold, Art as a collective entity is considered a public legacy. And museums were created with this precise concept in mind: that anyone and everyone can come to see their shared cultural past.

We can argue whether the corporation or the museum benefits more from these turnkey exhibitions (and I am certainly of the group that feels the former gains considerably more), but at the end of the day these exhibitions allow the public to see works that they would not ordinarily be able to see. Is this not something to be valued, even at the expense of some degree of curatorial independence?

8/24/2009 11:16:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

I'm assuming that a Museums entire schedule is not going to be filled with turnkey exhibitions. If a museum, especially in smaller venues, can access a turnkey exhibition of works they wouldn't otherwise be able to afford, I think it is a plus. Further, I suspect that the curators of the corporate collections are as qualified, or better qualified, than a lot of museum curators, money talks (note this is a suspicion, not a fact) I think this is a non event, the artworld thrives on the greasy palm.

8/24/2009 11:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Larry said...

always coming out all the more prosperous for it.

Ah, those evil corporations again. What part of "free of charge" or even "at a nominal cost" are you referring to?

For-profit businesses are in business to make money. That even applies on a small scale to art galleries. And while I loathe the bloated salaries made by the CEOs of most large corporations, I do not object per se to a business making money and certainly not to a corporation that lends its expensively purchased collection free of charge to a museum so that thousands of people can see it.

And corporations have been involved in the arts for ages. Those Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Met that so many grew up on? Blame them on Texaco.

What bothers me more than corporate sponsorsip of exhibits is the recent trend of building exhibits around collectors in general. How often of late have we seen exhibits even at the Met of "________ Painting from the Collection of __________," or "Acquisitions from the DeMontebello Years," etc. These exhibits often seem to be miscellanies where the art and its relationships take second place to the self-aggrandizement of the collector.

8/24/2009 11:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

...but I really wonder if the concern is not so much that the sponsorship is corporate or private, or even public, but that the exhibit is temporary .

Any work that enters into the museum's venue as a temporary concern would seem to me really difficult to place into a valued context. I would lean towards that this placing of art works into context is the museums forte and its raison d'etre. Isn't that what collections are? Works related by some common value. If the "collection" changes week by week (since it is temporary), the ability to percieve the thread of that common value seems to disappear.

Instead of a question of money "whoring", maybe it is a question of polygamous "one night" stands as it were?

8/24/2009 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger tony said...

Art as a financial commodity; art as a commodity to enhance image; art as a vehicle for social enhancement; art as entertainment - Isn't it rather late in the day to start introducing any notion of ethical/philosophical resposibility into the debate ?

I think Ruben is absolutely right in introducing the words 'whoring' & 'pimp' into his comment but I think he may be doing a disservice to the ladies of the street for they are more honest & make no attempt to shield their professional life behind sanctimonious & pretentious clap-trap.

8/24/2009 12:03:00 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

"What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he's around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I'm semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing... he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance... Just a tiny bit."

-Aaron Altman, "Broadcast News"

8/24/2009 12:08:00 PM  
Anonymous david carson said...

it's a very slippery slope for an institution that wants to preserve culture, and it's a fact of life for institutions that want to create culture.

love , or hate it - commerce and corporations have defined western culture for the last couple centuries by being the platform from which everything currently exists. what once was the realm of religion is now in the hands of corporations. It's neither good, or bad. It just is.

only commerce has the power to co-opt culture and institutionalize it today.

the only exceptions i see are being created online through new institutions like Wiki-Pedia. it is crowd-sourced institutionalization outside of the control of commerce.

i am very optimistic for some of these crowd-sourced institutions. It has the potential to change the power structure between commerce and culture, or at the very least provide an active check against commerce/culture in-balances.

Could you imagine Wiki-Pedia taking corporation-curated entries? you can't because they don't need commerce to fund their endeavor. the costs are low and the participation is high. an economic downturn doesn't affect them in the same way an institution with large-bloated costs does.

8/24/2009 01:33:00 PM  
Anonymous DJ Ward said...

Larry's right, Museums have been featuring collections of their major donors for years without many guarantees of donations. (Just look at what happened with the Broad Contemporary Art Museum). It's not surprising that since the recession hit private collectors pretty hard Museums had to look to corporations for help. What surprises me though is how open Rena DeSisto from the Bank of America is about their motives for lending to museums.

First, DeSisto is identified as "the bank’s global arts marketing and philanthropy executive." By having someone with this title, they've made a conscious effort to use their collection to market the bank. She says that if the bank sold the collection, it would likely have been at a loss. Even if the current market wasn't depressed, releasing that many works (60,000 from BofA) onto the market would have a seriously negative impact. Any benefits of exhibiting the works at a museum would likely be wiped out for the majority of the works in the collection.

The big benefit for BofA is in the marketing power of the exhibits. DeSisto says that landing "even one individual client can cover the entire cost of lending a turnkey exhibition.” Museum attendees, donors and trustees are one of the hardest demographics for marketers to reach. Lending a free exhibit to a museum is definitely a cheaper way to advertise than to buy an ad in the Wall Street Journal.

8/24/2009 01:38:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Sponsorship (i.e. Texaco funding the Saturday afternoon Met broadcasts, or Target underwriting free-entry on Friday nights) is one thing. Most of us watch TV and read magazines and newspapers, so we're perfectly able to separate the ad from the editorial. There's nothing wrong with advertising per se. (Those Met performances of Italian opera were the one thing on the radio that my Bruzzese grandmother could understand; the broadcasts were a gift not only to opera lovers but to immigrants who recognized their languages.)

But corporate-curated museum exhibitions make me nervious. Remember UBS at MoMA? It was not a very original or inspiring show. It was all ho-hum blue chip--but I'm sure the corporation increased the value of its holding as a result of having been shown at the museum. That to me was a despicable combination of art and commerce.

Armani at the Guggenheim? I'd love a nice Armani suit, but I don't think his work is museum worthy. If he didn't out-and-out sponsor the show, I'll bet the Guggenheim's coffers increased by a nice sum.(The Costume Institute at the Met is different. So is the Ratti Textile Study Center; its sponsor, the prestigions Italian textile company, is right there in the name. The connection is upfront, and I can appreciate the wealth of material available to study.)

What this trend suggests is that museums need to be clear about the curatorial circumstances, and we as museumgoers need to practice due diligence. It's possible that we will get to see some great art as a result.

8/24/2009 02:11:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

BAC has 1 out of every 2 people in the US as customers. Marketing in this case is a goodwill spin.

With 60,000 artworks in their collection, everyone must be dancing with the devil.

Personally I think turnkey exhibitions are a good idea.

8/24/2009 02:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Casper said...

+++too far into entertainment in the museum venue.

I don't agree, Gam. If fine art was allowed to be entertainment, maybe it wouldn't be so much focussed on being products to be sold for their potential lasting validity to corporations. Maybe fine art ought to be as ephemeral and splendid as a fireworks. I find that Edward defends his job by talking of his respect of corporation curators, but I sense a disacknowledgment that this type of curators are only looking for certain types of artwork which are products to fill up a corporation's vault. Vaults are not interesting for fine art. They're generally crammed, and kind
of ice-cold unresponsive to critical debate.

In the end it is almost regretful that we are not religious beings anymore. We have lacked from religion to the extent where we have deprived (depraved?) ourselves off of any humanistic values other than strictly economics. I mean, I would find it very respectable if fine art would reduce its concerns to pure aesthetics, but that's not even permitted: corporations have a heavy role in codifying acceptable aesthetics in fine art. A painting will always win over an environmental sculpture. It's all about what fits into the vault, and it's really bad.

I would rather see corporations develop a funding program for artistic research, rather than see them invest in fine art products. But more to the point: these condescending undertones from the economic specialists whenever Fine Art comes into questions are very suspicious. In cinema, you don't talk about the economical validity of a film that just won in a great festival in Europe, because critical reception does not warrant box office success. But there seems to be an overt confidence in the artworld that a successful artwork automatically implies an artwork beholding of economic validity, that can be tossed around in money-talk (as if the only interesting or relevant point about an artwork these days is its price and who owns it). Excuse me a minute: when did the artworld started to reek so heavily of superfluality? Fine Art artists would be more interesting if they didn't suck it all up, and provide artworks that can dismantle that confidence and that tiring preseance of economic endeavours that can turn pointless any true artistic intention with a handful of green.


Cedric Caspereux

8/24/2009 06:47:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

As George points out, there are other points of view on offer - a museum could be seen to be obligated to show many points of view in our pluralistic world.

All this morally loaded talk of whoring and pimps makes me happy.

I guarantee you most corporate collections will not offend many people of any stripe.

So if you are looking for moral police, look no further than policing by omission or inference. Smart people will look deeper, dumb people will take everything at face vlaue, end of story right?

Keep the masses as the masses. Keep em in the grasses.

I was at the Moma today - it's pretty awesome actually. A lot of suicides and overdoses on the walls! Weird right? I don;t buy the idea that artists are somehow more sensitive, but you have to wonder whats in the water - top ranked lawyers don't kill themselves very often do they? And financiers only lose it when the market crashes.

But corporations are insulated by plausible deniability from the lifestyle of the artist, and to a degree, the subject matter.

There is no accountability for corporations in the way that more cottage industry relationships do.

I think this is a negative.

But back to the insidious corporation - I see more danger in not allowing conservatives or capitalists or organizational man into the neo marxist and/or individualistic/self reliant paradigm - as much as omiting "pornographic" work or women, or aliens from another planet, which is pretty much what a lot of artists believe in - no weirder than a corporate stooge finding meaning in the brand right? I mean really, people need to get a grip and look at the world with the cold unsentimental eye.

The real danger then is that corporations tend to sentimentalize art - be it by Mark Lombardi who hung himself, or Jason Rhodes who died in a pool of mysterious vomit, or Ray Johnson who swam himself to death, or a few others I could mention. Up against the wall motherfuckers!

By the way, the James Ensor Exhibition is totally just a glorification of Belgium, and I object to their obvious shilling I had no fun looking at any of the images especially the ones that resembled Hieronymous Bosch or the insipid skulls and assorted punch and judy kitch. In light of Belgiums Colonialist past, and its de facto capitulation to the advancing forces of Germany, I must protest most vehemently. Really, no thank you Belgium, I am totally not happy at all.

8/24/2009 09:05:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

At the root of this we are talking of institutions as ideological vehicles.

Corporations are institutions, all of which are self replicating by definition. Self replication uses the process of the feedback loop - organisms bound together and propagating its own DNA by means of ideological structure and composed of agents (people).

Institutions, landed or transnational, hierarchical or distributed, all have inefficiencies in their process - some of these have function, but much of it is baggage, to use the pop psych terminology.

In the case of Belgium we are talking about atrocities that have distinct one to one learning curves and in other colonial regimes, not to mention ripple effects involving modern day Congo. We are after all just gorillas wandering in foggy mountain time.

Now if we are nationalists we would refuse Belgium's apology to Rawanda on the grounds that a nation is guilty for all time, and that nothing Belgium has done so far has atoned for the sin.

At the same time we would glorify James Ensor as a distinctly Belgian rather than a painter who happened to live in Osted. We would lay claim to all the lands beyond ours in manifest destiny, for thus is the course of empire.

I'm not sure I like the elitism in transnationalism, but I do like the anti-nationalism of individualism. So in a sense I am opposed to flat footed institutions, and there will always be a place for critique of systems of any sort.

On the other hand, life is short and Sampson didn't fell Goliath with a rubber apple now did he?

No, and that is why I wont be manning any barricades made of hay bales unless I am given real rye whisky molotov cocktails.

8/24/2009 11:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

my contention with entertainment is because its a "divertissement" - it diverts - temporarily at least.

even with whoring my concern isn't with the smell of somehow tainted money - it's with the transient nature of the exhibition within the museum space.

even in the curatorial aspect I don't knock the corporate curator -what concerns me is the grafting onto the museums curatorial activities this "diversion" - that makes me hesitate. Imagine going to McDonald's and expecting Scottish cuisine ... now McD's and Scotlands finest each have their place, but when a museum tries to hard to be like the local pinball gallery I think we are risking losing our way. (with all due respects to pinball wizards and the designers of such games)

I think film as showcased in block buster limited run showings is a case in point for the dangers of temporarity - how come I am not easily exposed to the depth of cinematic history and its development and achievements - I think it is likely because it is only in the museum-like venue that you can make that aspect a priority. Temporary exhibits aren't suspect for me in of them selves, what worries me is their inclusion as a mainstay in the museum's efforts- simply because that "diverts" the museums raison d'etre for me. Maybe I see the role of the museum as too static but I.m not so certain of that.

(anyway now I'll go duck - cheers)

8/25/2009 06:33:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

"is the grafting onto the museums curatorial activities this "diversion" - that makes me hesitate."

Gee wiz, what do you think they're doing when you aren't looking?

8/25/2009 10:40:00 AM  
Blogger Dalen said...

The definition of permanent seems rather flux these days. Employment is permanent until it ends. This blog is permanent, is it not? but still forever changing with additions, archiving, never really fixed in time or even physical space (unless printed out) but always there. Not like a book. Are museums meant to be books?

I suppose I've been living with the assumption that museums (art museums, at any rate) have their permanent collection then they have their rotating exhibitions, and that's just the way it is.

What is the alternative to a corporation lending for temporary exhibition? Selling or gifting those works to the museum?

8/25/2009 12:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Gam, to me all arts are forms of divertissements. Fine Art is a specialized divertissement.
It rarely succeeded at changing the world. Most people enjoy fine art because they are bored.
Fine art is about how you are able as an artist to "divert" the viewer aesthetically (conceptual
art also have aesthetics) toward what you aim to do or say. In a sense fine art, often attempts
to subvert divertissement. It will use great imagery on a spectacular canvas to convey something else. Or it might be saying "Look At This Aesthetic Event!", but aesthetics are constantly battling
it out through the cognitive process. Aesthetics are all about attracting or diverting the cognitive mind.

If in fine art your strategy is to reject the superficiality of aesthetics (to reject the viewer's visual sensibility), then you'll have to think of how to make your art the least "diverting" possible.

Right now, fine artists seem less bothered by attracting the most people possible to their art.
They want the collectors to buy it. So from there develops a codification of aesthetics where one makes fine art that is more likely to be bought. In doing this, the fine art of today is much less interested in divertissement than Guernica by Picasso was. It becomes a commodification of divertissement.
I think the mistake is to not distinguish divertissement from commodity. If you're doing a blockbuster film that is more commodity than divertissement, it will fail. You can't repeat the same tricks over and over again and claim it to be "divertissement". The cognitive process doesn't tolerate an excess
of repetition. To achieve great entertainment is the hardest work in any artistic endeavour.


Cedric Caspesyan

PS: fireworks are a great challenge to fine art. They're not objects to be bought. They really divert the visual senses. But they are intellectually boring, while fine art at its best aims to divert more than the senses, when its goal is to divert the intellect.

8/25/2009 01:29:00 PM  
Blogger J. Wesley Brown said...

Hi Ed - I work a day job in the finance dept. of a major museum. You are correct that the corporation just covers the costs you mention and no admin. costs.

I think at this point we're just happy to have some corporate sponsors willing to help out in the current climate and we haven't taken these turn-key shows, but rather just accept sponsorships or in one case, our curator worked with theirs to get to the finished product.

8/25/2009 04:19:00 PM  

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