Are museums obsolete? Are wealthy collectors making it impossible for museums to compete? Can museums keep their integrity in the current climate of wealthy donors? These are a few questions that are raised by the recent controversy at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. If you haven't been following the daily developments here is a brief summary.
For good or bad, Eli Broad, is the single greatest force in the LA contemporary art scene. He bailed out the troubled museum, MoCA in 2008 with a $30-million grant. Broad was instrumental in having Jeffrey Deitch, the showy New York dealer, named director in 2010. In the last 30 days, Paul Schimmel, MoCA' s chief curator of 22 years, has been fired and every artist on the board has resigned over artistic disagreements with Deitch's “celebrity-driven program.” It is a stunning break between the people who control the money for art and the people who make the art. The survival of MoCA is still very much up in the air but is survival the only goal or is the quality of art also part of the equation. Philippe de Montebello, the great director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, explains, "The one mantra that every museum director should have: First comes the work of art. Everything else devolves from it."
In an interview at Art Basel 2012, Deitch offered amazing insights into the inherent problems facing him as a museum director. Deitch explained that raising funds for MoCA was impossible. He found people in LA wouldn't even take his calls. He only raised $15,000 for a show he brought to LA, only to see it sell for half a million dollars at a gallery in Chicago at a later date. But Deitch's strongest criticism was saved for the new class of wealthy private institutions that now compete with museums for acquisitions. These mega-collectors pose a greater threat to museums than the top galleries, he said. When many artists sell directly to multimillionaires who have private foundations, why show or sell to a museum where space is limited and the art can only be shown every four to five years?
Then there are the solutions that Broad talked about in a recent LATimes interview. The ideas for solving those troubles are essentially from a businessman's point of view and have nothing to do with the quality of art. He said MoCA needed to grow its "audience" and that can be accomplished by making MoCA more "populist." In other words, don't worry about the art just get more customers and please the crowd.
With big-business at the helm, there are also self-serving motives for including artists in a show. Again quoting Deitch. “If you want a heavyweight historical show that doesn’t include popular artists it’s hard to get corporate and collector support. They will if there’s an artist they want to get in with.” It doesn't take much of a stretch to see donors having the say in which artists are included in a show and which are not.
Luckily, many museums still produce high quality shows that are about the art. The public upheavals at MoCA have exposed some troubling trends but I have the feeling the drama isn't over yet. Ultimately, every art institution has to figure out how to balance the interests of making money with the interests of art. I hope the end decision will be in the interest of great art but more likely both will have their influence. What do you think? Does the current climate of donor influence affect the quality of art at museum shows? Should museums be privatized?Topics: Learning Curve
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