BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 01 APR 10
Featured in
Issue 130

Double Vision

A tale of overlapping interests

BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 01 APR 10

There are at least two ways to tell any story, a minimum of four ways to tell two stories, eight to tell four. However, for brevity’s sake – as well as accuracy’s – let’s fold four into two, divide that in half and begin with indulgent whimsy.

Once upon a time there were two guys of uncommon ambition, shrewdness and charm. Both were named Jeffrey; both were art-as-business men. The first was a critic-turned-banker-turned dealer-turned-museum-director, the second an artist-turned-broker-turned-artist-turned-curator. Between them they covered all the bases of the art system, including that of collector – since, with the huge profits each made in his primary occupation, both bought aesthetic trophies for themselves. Their glamorous fulfillment of the Warholian dream and their deft consolidation of roles had a kind of beauty to it that attracted others with still more monopolistic tendencies, greater hubris, vastly larger fortunes but less imagination, thus making the paired prodigies the premier cultural industrialists of their day. Over the course of nearly 30 boom-to-bust years, the two self-made men epitomized a model of efficiency and meritocracy that we might, in their honour, call Jeffreysonian democracy. Indeed, they formed the very nexus of the art world in the best of times and the worst of times before the stainless steel bubbles they traded back and forth started to leak into the deflationary disequilibrium tank of the surrounding economy.

The second part of the fable is equally fantastic but more frightening, thus reducing whimsy and eliminating indulgence.

Once upon a time there were two tycoons eager to make their names as the leading Mecenae of their Gilded Age. Both were big in real estate, both took pride in having things their own way and neither saw much distinction between the public and the private sectors. As deal makers noted for cutting to the chase and cutting out the middlemen, they imagined that the antique models of patronage invented by Carnegie, Frick, Guggenheim, Mellon, the Rockefellers and Whitney could be improved upon and made more business-like in ways that would make them famous as innovators who bested the best. After all why give a lot when you can give a little – or very little compared to one’s actual wealth – and still have your name on buildings and in the papers?

As fate would have it, these two tycoons shared a taste for the tasteless, though neither was quite as brave in this regard as the Zeitgeist demanded. But then connoisseurship in the realm of subversive bad taste is as rare as connoisseurship in that of Epicurean good taste, while the distinctions between them in the former category are as sharp as those between a thoughtful but robust vulgarity and thoughtless but timid one.

In the final analysis, the two tycoons lacked the courage of their lack of convictions, and so, as Carnegie, Frick, Guggenheim, Mellon, the Rockefellers and Whitney did, they sought out expert advice. Enter the two Jeffreys, who had just what the two tycoons needed to insure an unrivalled stature in the art world comparable to the one they enjoyed in casinos of finance. In short order, the multiple of their talents and resources were matched to the conceptual and cash deficits of two beleaguered museums, one of which had been a fount of brave ideals and ideas with almost no collection, while the other was a comparatively adventurous comprehensive museum of modern and contemporary art with a fine collection, much of it donated by collectors who in the Carnegie, Frick, Guggenheim, Mellon, the Rockefellers and Whitney mode thought – naively if we accept our tycoons’ view as the way of the future – that patrons ought to give outright and often to the institutions whose boards they joined.

But times were tough, marriages of convenience common, and few at the weddings dared speak out lest their turn came next. Among worldly people, who wishes to cause embarrassment, especially when causes for it are obvious? (Did I mention that Jeffrey the dealer/director was a prime mover on behalf of Jeffrey the artist/curator and that the two tycoons owned warehouses full of the latter’s product?)

One excuse offered for the overlapping interests among this foursome (in the foolishly ethical old days they were labelled ‘conflicts of interest’ but with government busy saving capitalism from disaster, who’s investigating?) was that such alliances are not new but simply how things have always worked in museums. (FYI, it isn’t – at least not in well-run museums that know how to say ‘no’.) The other argument, nicely contradicting the first, even when it comes from the same source, is that the machinations of the Fab Four consitute a new paradigm – ‘So get with it!’ If so, heaven help us; because, according to their new math, and judging by the first exhibition such insider trading has produced, two times two equals zero.

Robert Storr is a critic and curator.