One of the biggest controversies in the art world right now is the role of the private collector in the non-profit museum. Skin Fruit, currently on view at the New Museum, is the collection of Dakis Joannou, a New Museum Trustee. The New York Times brazenly questioned the New Museum’s ethics and then continued their rant by criticizing the quality of the show in general. A few weeks ago I was honored to attend an all day symposium at the New Museum called “Art Museums, Private Collectors and the Public,” which focused on the historic role private collectors have had with public art institutions. The first panel focused on public and private partnerships with esteemed art historians, Inge Reist, Sally Webster, Linda Nochlin (love her!) and Andrew McClellan each presenting on the subject. The second panel focused on new models of collaboration and was comprised of the distinguished curators, Lisa Phillips, Tom Eccles, Iwona Blazwick, and Francesco Bonami.
After the first panel, I was struck by the simple fact that most large museums in the US have been founded by distinguished art collectors. The National Gallery in DC was founded by Andrew Carnegie; the Met’s core collection was filled by the generosity of John Taylor Johnston and more recently families such as the Havemeyer’s and estate of Robert Lehman. Why you may ask? The answer is simple; our government does not set forward to fund the arts in the US, nor, could it afford to make purchases in todays art market on the same level as wealthy collectors. Hence, the importance of the generous private donor.
The second panel was a bit more lively. Who can deny that Francesco Bonami is anything but entertaining? The panelists brought up issues such as the private collector using a museum show to increase the value of individual works in order to achieve a higher sale price at auction. Eccles, director of Curatorial Studies at Bard College, shared a recent situation where he was told by a collector they would only fund a catalogue for his show if he included a specific work from their collection. Fortunately, Eccles did not crumble to the hopeful collector’s demands. Iwona Blazwick, the director of Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, explained that because Whitechapel is a modern day kunsthaller they had to be very careful about choosing collections they approach to lend. She said they ask each collector to sign a contract stating they will not sell the work at auction after the show. Of course, there would really be no recourse should a collector lie about his or her intentions. She made a point that is very easy to tell from a collector’s history at auction if they are the type to capitalize on a museum show.
And so I ask the question: what is the harm in a museum holding a solo show from a single collection? The Guggenheim was not criticized when it exhibited Henry Buhl’s collection of photography focused on the hand. Nor was the Brooklyn Museum for the recent Hernan Bas exhibition that featured works only from the Rubell Collection. Aren’t collectors often savvier about up and coming artists than most museum curators anyway? And let’s face it, serious collectors have deeper pockets than most public institution, the Getty excluded. I have always found Miami’s private museums to be ahead of the larger New York institutions on emerging artist trends.
Although I have no problem with the ethics of the New Museum, I do have criticism of Skin Fruit. As an art advisor, I try to create collections that speak about my collector’s personality. I love walking into a home whose walls say a lot about its owners. I found Skin Fruit perplexing. I do not know Dakis Joannou, but, after this show I still have no idea about who he is. Is he a man crudely obsessed with the size of his body? Beats me.
I also was disappointed that I had seen many of the works in the show before. I can recall seeing Maurizio Cattelan’s Now at the Carnegie International 6 years ago where it was much more dramatically displayed in a large, empty ballroom with the only light luminating from the coffin itself. I felt scared as I approached it, and then the absurdity of it captured me. I did not have the same feeling about it at the New Museum as it was crammed into a tiny side room. I was also sad to see how insignificant Terence Koh’s Untitled (Chocolate Mountains), an ode to the World Trade Towers, felt in a room so crowded by other art. Wouldn’t it have been powerful to have given them their own room with the right lighting to really let the viewer conjure feelings about their large, ghost-like qualities?
Haven’t we seen Tauba Auerbach’s works everywhere? She just closed a show at Deitch Projects in October, 2009 and also has three large, and more impressive, paintings hanging at the Whitney Biennial. I also remember seeing Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s, Black Narcissus, last year in the side room at Deitch Projects Grand Street gallery.
Overall, I applaud the New Museum for giving Dakis a single collector show. I wanted to see it. And to the argument that the show is controversial because Dakis is a Trustee, I say more museums should follow in the New Museum’s footstep. Don’t we wish we could see more amazing collections, like them or not, from outstanding international collectors? Thank you to Dakis for sharing his collection and to the New Museum for taking the heat. One request for the future though, please don’t ask Jeff Koons to curate again.