July 05, 2005

Green's spleen II

Tyler is begging for links, so I'll give him one. He's written an op-ed for the Boston Globe, recapitulating all his old bellyaching about Malcom Rogers, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and renting out paintings to the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

I've written at length about this already, so I'll just address Tyler's points in the op-ed briefly.

  • The MFA has put its treasures at risk by lending them to a non-accredited institution. Tyler normally has nothing but praise for PaceWildenstein and its curatorship. Does he have any reason to believe that an accredited institution in Las Vegas would be better at looking after paintings than the combination of PaceWildenstein and the Bellagio?
  • A nonprofit institution should never be associated with anybody who's out to make a profit. Does that mean it shouldn't hire for-profit subcontractors to do security work or renovations or art shipping or insurance? Non-profit organisations deal with for-profit organisations the whole time. If Malcom Rogers isn't exhibiting his impressionists in Boston, better that he exhibit them in Las Vegas than that they languish in storage. Once the decision to exhibit the paintings in Vegas has been made, the collection should go to the entity best placed to show them to best effect to the greatest number of people.
  • "By renting paintings to a gallery in a Nevada casino through a for-profit business, the MFA is dissing Boston and Massachusetts." This just makes no sense at all. Tyler is extremely upset that a private business is charging $15 to see the MFA's paintings, without ever mentioning that the cost of seeing the MFA's paintings at the MFA is, um, $15. The MFA charges that $15 admission because it needs the money. It could, pace Tyler, "create a museum that serves Nevadans", but that would cost even more money, which the MFA does not have. So instead Rogers kills two birds with one stone: he serves Nevadans, and he gets extra revenue. Who is hurt by this arrangement? No one.
Tyler should get off his high horse and realise that things which make a profit are not always bad things. He says that he's been to many exhibitions which made money and which were good and enjoyable. So what makes him think that any exhibition which makes money for a for-profit institution is automatically meretricious and beneath contempt?
Posted by Felix at 04:13 AM GMT

Felix, I love ya, but you're knocking down at least one argument I didn't make. And the issue isn't profit, but who is making it and how it's being made. And I'd suggest you look up what it takes for AAM to accredit an institution -- it has nothing to do with curatorial prowess. And you're missing the whole question of whether or not MFA Boston's deal is legal. It may not be.

Posted by: Tyler Green on July 5, 2005 05:08 PM

That's exactly my point, Tyler. You think it's prima facie OK for a non-profit organisation to make money off the MFA's paintings, while it's Not OK for a for-profit organisation to make money off the MFA's paintings. "The issue isn't profit, but who is making it." That's just silly: the MFA should do what's best for the MFA, regardless of who else may or may not make a profit.

Posted by: Felix on July 5, 2005 05:18 PM

"What's best" -- do you mean financially, or culturally? The issue I have with renting paintings is that while non-profits and for-profits might sometimes provide similar services (in which cases, yes, for-profits do it more efficiently), the criteria they use to make curatorial judgments are actually quite different. So "what's best" for PaceWildenstein is whatever makes the highest profit; "what's best" for the MFA should be whatever best fulfils its civic mission.

While the MFA obviously makes money off its paintings in the form of admissions and postcard sales, I would not expect profit to be the sole basis for curatorial decisions. The same cannot be guaranteed of private galleries.

Posted by: Joseph on July 5, 2005 09:02 PM

Joseph, we're talking about PaceWildenstein here, whose curatorial standards at its New York for-profit galleries are incredibly high -- often higher than the standards at non-profit institutions. I actually doubt that a small Nevada non-profit would be able to put on a show of impressionists with the kind of curatorial standards that are second nature for PaceWildenstein. So long as the MFA signs off on the curatorship, we're fine -- and Tyler, in his many rantings about the Bellagio shows, has never actually attacked the curatorship per se. In fact, I'm not sure he's ever actually seen them.

Posted by: Felix on July 5, 2005 09:40 PM

I'm certainly not accusing PaceWildenstein of "bad" curatorship. I'm accusing them of different curatorship, because they are organized for an entirely different purpose. Although museums' public and cultural obligations and private galleries' financial interests often seem to line up, their different approaches to valuing art should never be confused. Contaminating the MFA's coffers with money from a purely-for-profit show qualitatively changes the way the museum values artworks.

As I've pointed out elsewhere, a nonprofit museum is recognized by the public, the government, and its donors as an extension of the civic realm. A private gallery may be a kind of upscale entertainment venue or a place for rich people to shop for art, but don't pretend it is there to serve the public.

Posted by: Joseph on July 5, 2005 10:39 PM

Museums and galleries both are "a kind of upscale entertainment venue" -- or, for that matter, not so upscale. Just because a gallery like PaceWildenstein or Gagosian isn't there to serve the public doesn't mean that it doesn't, in practice, serve the public -- and the "civic realm" -- at least as well as many non-profit organisations do. I judge a posteriori, not a priori, and it seems to me that in practice, the best galleries -- and PaceWildenstein is definitely one -- are just as good at serving the public as the vast majority of non-profit museums.

Posted by: Felix on July 6, 2005 01:06 AM

Then, hell, why not abolish nonprofit museums altogether?

I'm arguing that nonprofit and for-profit institutions are fundamentally different animals. Their interests may often overlap, but their basic raisons d'etre could not be more distinct. The rental deal creats a conflict of interest for the MFA because it mingles the museum's own publicly- and culturally-minded curatorship with the profit-driven curatorship of PaceWildenstein. As with most conflicts of interest, it's very hard to prove that this or that specific damage was actually done. But specific proof is not necessary, because it's the appearance of a conflict (which of course is an a priori determination) that makes the influence of for-profit profit so problematic -- and, as Tyler reminds us, possibly illegal.

Posted by: Joseph on July 6, 2005 12:31 PM

I guess that UBS pasting their name all over MoMA wouldn't be a similar postential conflict? Or any other more subtle gestures (naming right of families who also own corporations that use their name?).

As long as the cost of owning the art these facilities display correlate to the promotion of private institutions -- and really, the MFA 'promoting' PaceWildenstein? How many people even know what it is? Most think, falsely, that it has something to do with Jocelyn -- be it galleries or corporations, or simply wealthy individuals (isn't the promotion of the patron even more insiduous than a gallery?), it strikes me as naive to claim something unseemly is happening. It only plays into the myth that the upper echelon of culture is somehow egalitarian. Perhaps some Andrea Fraser would be instructive here.

Posted by: 99 on July 6, 2005 12:51 PM

Surely non-profits can and must raise funds to pay the costs of running a major institution. The question Tyler raises is by what means are ethical. The public trust is what is at issue. Does Pace Wildenstein as a for profit gallery gain an unfair advantage by renting the paintings? What better way to attract wealthy buyers then show the most popular artists in a gallery they control. This is far different then a corporation giving support to a museum and getting recognition for their largess. I wonder why Pace and other galleries who gain from a healthy art market don't contribute to non-profits like other corporations do. Is it because they have something to gain by having a close insider trading relationship with the museums? What did Sachi gain with his show in Brooklyn? The tax laws are clear personal gain is not allowed because of the public trust granted by the exemption.

Posted by: Charlie on July 6, 2005 01:52 PM

Yes, Joseph (and Tyler), museums and galleries are fundamentally different animals. But animals of different stripes can, in certain circumstances, play very well together. And in fact any museum which still aquires art is going to have to deal with for-profit galleries at some point. There is simply no reason to believe that PaceWildenstein is doing a worse job than a non-profit institution would have done with the same material. Whether or not it makes a profit doing so should not be a concern of the MFA's.

Posted by: Felix on July 6, 2005 02:37 PM

One, the question isn't how good a job anyone does. I don't understand why that's an issue. The issue I've raised (and that others have raised) has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the work on display.

Still, if we're intent on that canard: There IS reason to believe that Pace does a worse job. See last year's power outage, the likely damage to Monets, and understand why accreditation is important.

Posted by: Tyler on July 6, 2005 02:56 PM

99: Whether the MFA "promotes" Pace is not at issue. They can and should promote all their donors. But it's worth asking why donors like UBS give (and why our tax laws support giving) to nonprofit museums, and not directly to commercial galleries like Pace, if, as Felix seems to think, Pace serves the public "at least as well" as the MFA.

Posted by: Joseph on July 6, 2005 03:38 PM

I didn't say that Pace serves the public at least as well as the MFA. I said that Pace serves the public at least as well as many non-profit organisations. Not enormous ones like the MFA, but small little museums in places like Nevada, which, according to Tyler, are the only places that the MFA should let exhibit its impressionists. If the a/c can go out at the Bellagio, I can guarantee you that the a/c can go out at a tiny Las Vegas nonprofit -- whether or not it has AAM accreditation. And I reckon that the professionals at Pace are likely to have higher standards of curatorship than the director of a tiny Las Vegas nonprofit, too.

Posted by: Felix on July 6, 2005 04:07 PM