BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 05 MAY 08
Featured in
Issue 115

The Art of Giving

When patrons wrestle power from museum curators and directors, what does it mean for the public?

BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 05 MAY 08

The Luce Center for Visible Art, Visible Storage, Study Center, Brooklyn Museum

The ‘art of the deal’, as anyone watching the meltdown of the sub-prime market will have learnt, is to make hare-brained and ultimately reckless new schemes seem not only ‘business-like’ but visionary and public-spirited. Eli Broad’s plan for sharing his collection with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art while holding onto it in perpe-tuity is a glaring example of ‘what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine’ deal-making in the philanthropic domain. Let us hope that the justifiable outrage that greeted this ‘public offering’ when it was launched will doom other such efforts and – hope against hope – prompt Broad to swallow his bruised pride and rethink the embarrassing long-term downsides of calling everybody’s attention to a benefaction that isn’t one. But in case Broad and those who look to him still haven’t grasped the reasons why his ideas about restructuring collections and other museum reforms dictated from the executive suite won’t work, hereare just a few issues to consider.

Museums of art are the public libraries of visual culture. Their galleries are reading-rooms. At any given time only some of their rich reserves are readily accessible. Pursuing the analogy, this means that only classics, best-sellers and recently ‘published’ works of art are likely to be on open reading-room shelves or the viewing-room walls. The rest are in the stacks. Once upon a time major museums such as the National Gallery in London and the Pompidou Centre in Paris made an effort to keep a significant portion of their storage on view in special rooms or by special means such as mobile screens, and the Brooklyn Museum has recently done this, with part of its holdings currently being housed in glass cases.

To enhance their ability to make focused exhibitions, museums negotiate the equivalent of inter-library loans, and otherwise well-run institutions use their strengths and make the most of their weaknesses by regularly reinstalling their permanent galleries in ways that assure that little-seen works do get seen all the same, and that often-seen works acquire new meanings by being seen with less familiar ones, or are refreshed by being given a rest from time to time. The power to secure loans is based not only on the quality of what can be loaned in exchange but also on the uncompromised capacity and authority to do so. Meanwhile, the ability to dip into a collection to showcase its most distinctive but less than canonical or not yet canonical works depends not only on keeping them but also on having them readily on hand. Great libraries do not sell off works by Flannery O’Connor or Doris Lessing or Julio Cortázar that have gone unread for years, and any museum that sold off its Francis Picabias or Richard Hamiltons or Frida Kahlos when they were out of fashion must certainly regret it. Alert curators, having intimate knowledge of a collection’s depths and, in the best-case scenarios, of the changing temper of the times, are the ones trained and charged to make decisions about what to bring forward, what to relocate, recontextualize or temporarily retire, what to lend and, from a conservation perspective, what to protect from excessive display or travel. Of course, curators make mistakes, and sooner or later they are held accountable for serious errors in judgement, by the press, the public and their peers.

So what happens when a patron or a foundation unaccountable to anyone or anything else is injected into this mix? What happens when a private individual or board decides what and when to loan, and to whom, as well as what to de-accession and what to keep, and ultimately what – in the absence of any scholarly preparation – the verdict of art history is likely to be? And what leverage does a museum director or curator have in a subtle test of wills with a fully empowered counterpart at another museum if that counterpart knows that the patron or private board actually calls the shots. What if the director or curator with the free hand has back channels to the patron or board that cut out the subordinate director or curator? And what if a dealer who has pending business with the collector has a voice in the selection and destination of loans? All these imponderables attend the shift in the balance of institutional power that Broad has proposed. However, we are really talking not about a power shift but about a categorical usurpation of the role of museum professionals by those who used to support them. The aesthetic rationale is that passionate patrons know as much as anyone, but in the final analysis they may know only what they like. The social excuse is that the general audience will see more in more places, but it won’t; it will merely see what a proud possessor of a finite slice of visual culture wants them to see. What ever happened to the art of giving?

Robert Storr is a critic and curator.