BY Stefan Kobel in Opinion | 07 DEC 17

Outrage Over Conflicts of Interest Misses the Mark

‘Conflicts of interest’ may have cost Beatrix Ruf her Stedelijk job but the problem doesn’t just lie with individuals – it’s structural too

BY Stefan Kobel in Opinion | 07 DEC 17

Over a decade ago, when I was relatively new to working in the arts, an art insurer friend told me she’d been asked to assess the collection of a freelance curator. The curator had accumulated numerous gifts from artists whose work he’d shown over the years. Together these artworks were now worth more than his apartment and he urgently needed to insure them. I was outraged: how could an independent curator accept works of art in addition to his fee? Would this not create dependencies that would influence his curatorial integrity? Today, I know the gifting of artworks to curators and critics is not wholly uncommon, if not openly admitted. The acceptance of such gifts can be readily justified with a view to the low pay and inadequate pensions given to many working in the arts. Who can blame freelance critics, whose average income (according to Germany’s state social security provider for artists and writers, Künstlersozialkasse), is below the statutory minimum wage, for accepting works that they would never be able to afford from their earnings alone?

Lucy McKenzie, If it Moves Kiss It II, 2002, acrylic paint on wall, installation view, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2017. Courtesy: Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; photograph: Gert-Jan van Rooij

Such reactions reveal how deeply entrenched our value systems are in relationship to contemporary art – at least in the West. A few years ago, for a collateral event at the Venice Biennale, a Chinese artistic ‘patron’ organized the largest show of Chinese contemporary art outside of China. This individual, according to some of the artists involved, saw no problem in expecting works from them as an expression of gratitude. In Western Europe, when gratitude is given, it usually happens under the cloak of a mainly unregulated industry whose ethical guidelines are hazy or unpronounced. In the case of the Chinese patron, at least what took place was a deal agreed upon by both sides and under clear conditions.

Seen traditionally, critics act as correctives to the art market. Curators select and exhibit art based on artistic and cultural merit. Yet the lines between fields of activity that should be mutually exclusive are increasingly blurred. It’s nearly impossible these days to make a living solely as a freelance critic or curator, and rarer still for people to work within a single, strictly defined role: critics write catalogue texts or curate shows, curators advise collectors or companies. ‘Conflicts of interest’ may still be questioned in ethical terms – but it’s easily countered that, for some, it’s mere survival. At what point can or must these practices, often born of necessity, be stopped? And why is this dilemma only discussed after a scandal occurs?

Beatrix Ruf. Courtesy: Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; photograph: Robin de Puy

Such a scandal recently cost Beatrix Ruf her job as director of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. Prior to this appointment, and with her company Currentmatters, she earned significant sums advising collectors. Her clients included individuals who later loaned works to the Stedelijk, one of whom, Thomas Borgmann, donated part of his collection and sold a number of other works to the institution. (A majority of these works are on display until 3 March in the Stedelijk exhibition ‘Jump Into the Future – Art from the 90’s and 2000’s – The Borgmann Donation’.) When the Dutch newspaper NRC broke the story of Ruf’s conflicts of interest in dramatic style on 6 October 2017, followed by investigative reporting on Ruf’s art advising activities and her company Currentmatters in 12 October 2017, Ruf immediately stepped down. Ruf, it was alleged, failed to declare this secondary employment to the museum’s governing bodies. Behind this lay the charge that she was loyal to ‘a select group of artists, gallery owners, collectors and sponsors’ to the detriment of the public. But Ruf insists she honoured her duty of disclosure towards the museum. (Ruf herself is refraining from public comment. She wrote to me, ‘[o]ut of respect for the Stedelijk Museum I have decided not to comment or respond to questions in the media until the reports commissioned by the City of Amsterdam have been completed.) Ferdinand Grapperhaus, recently appointed chairman of the Stedelijk’s supervisory board, has vowed to clear up the matter. Shortly after the affair was made public, Grapperhaus was appointed justice minister of the Netherlands. For the new centre-right Dutch government, the appointment of a Dutch national to the post would be welcome (Ruf is German).

Others are split on the matter. One chief curator of a national museum, who asked to remain unnamed, told me he doesn’t understand the fuss: ‘everyone knew that Beatrix Ruf was close to the market and that she worked with certain galleries. If this now comes as a surprise to the board of the Stedelijk, then they didn’t do their homework.’ In his opinion, she was chosen precisely because of her good connections, which would allow the museum to organize significant exhibitions. Under Ruf’s directorship, the Stedelijk museum held solo exhibitions of artists such as Seth Price (2017), Jana Euler (2017) and Ed Atkins (2015) – artists exhibited by Ruf at Kunsthalle Zürich (2008, 2014 and 2014, respectively), where she was previously director, to name just a few examples.

mumok, Vienna, 2017. Courtesy: mumok, Vienna; photograph: Klaus Pichler

Ruf isn’t the only museum director who has come under fire. Gerald Matt in Vienna, the director of Kunsthalle Wien from 1996 until 2012, was suspected of mismanagement of public funds. In his case, accusations of self-enrichment peaked at the alleged acceptance of a VIP card for the Art Basel fair – hardly a prosecutable act, though one interpreted by some Austrian politicians as evidence of corruption. He left in May 2012. (Other high-profile scandals in Austria’s public arts sector in recent years were discussed by Matthias Dusini in frieze.) mumok in Vienna is currently being run by Karola Kraus in her second term. It is not implausible that in the case of a change of government, a politician could work out that Kraus is not only a competent museum director but also a member of a prominent family of collectors, that one of her sisters is an important gallerist or that Kraus herself has been known to show works by artists collected by her family. This might appear as a clear case of patronage, even if the museum director is enabled to offer a platform to artists she considers important.

According to Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, ‘it is an ethically correct thing to follow over the years an artist’s work as it develops and to study and exhibit that artist over years. This is like a scientist researching the same topic for years until he or she feels they have completed the research.’ Christov-Bakargiev’s work with specific artists extends from her current post at Castello di Rivoli in Turin, to the Istanbul Biennial (2015) and dOCUMENTA (13) (2012) and before. She adds, ‘there is no personal gain nor income from this for me and there should not be. A gallery may contribute support to an exhibition in terms of contribution to costs of a catalogue production, for example, and as long as it is openly stated and acknowledged publicly, and as long as the request for support comes from the institution and not the other way around (meaning: as long as we do not programme what galleries suggest we programme but instead what we feel is crucial to culture) this is part of normal fundraising.’ She is strict, however, on the question of money, a question that ‘must be replied to in terms of specific situations. In my case I believe there is no conflict of interest as there is no personal gain. Conflict of interest lies in cases where a curator or director would be receiving compensation from a gallery, like a percentage on sales or fee as advisor.’

Cosima von Bonin in ‘Jump into the Future – Art from the 90s and 2000s. The Borgmann Donation’, installation view, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2017. Courtesy: Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; photograph: Gert Jan van Rooij

Rather than lying exclusively in the ethical conflicts of individual actors, the problem here may be structural in nature. After government cuts in many parts of Europe, museums have been forced to depend on collectors and major galleries. As a result, a multitude of grey areas have opened up. Unlike in the US, in Europe there are few detailed codes of practice spelling out exactly what is allowed and what is not. Raimund Stecker, a former museum director in Germany, has a very clear view on this point: ‘It’s not financial resources that promote conflicts of interest. That would prevent them to a large extent. It is the lack of funding.’ He goes on, ‘exhibitions in publicly subsidized museums that are ushered into those spaces by powerful galleries are the consequence of this lack of funding, thus embedding the museums in a self-mirroring, low-cost operation steered by outside interests and abolishing their status as authorities of our times beyond the present.’ According to him, direct interference by politics seems to be more of a problem in the provinces: ‘Party politics doesn’t often play a role, but its occasional impact is biggest where the charisma of museums puts that of mediocre local politicians in the shade.’ However, a look at Berlin and the undignified wrangling over the Humboldt Forum (its new institution set to open in 2019) with a jungle of competing and contradicting competencies, dependencies and responsibilities proves that, in Germany at least, even the capital is provincial.

How are pressures from political interests felt elsewhere? In Christov-Bakargiev’s view, such pressures are marginal: ‘I suppose in some cases politicians might wish to influence programmes in order to have more popular consensus and to privilege consensus over the museum as a site of research and curatorial experimentation, but I am not sure this constitutes conflict of interest. It may just be a form of populistic pressure related to consensus.’

The Berlin Palace under construction, March 2017. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

For museum directors, however, this is the point where the need to engage with politics begins, potentially leading them to arrive at rotten compromises. Stecker himself had negative experiences directing the Hans Arp Museum in Rolandseck, where he was forced to leave after he criticized the overpriced acquisition of dubious posthumous casts of sculptures. At the Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg, he was accused of paying restaurant bills for meals with donors (which may have conflicted with rules for public servants in Germany). He criticizes the spinelessness of those who should actually be watching over institutions: ‘Lacking an interest in art and with no culture of discussion, they hide behind external aspects of the museum and withdraw to a position of delighting in the exercise of administrative control – to the point of calling in the public prosecutor’s office when, to put it bluntly, something is not to their liking.’

Rules would help as a way of introducing clarity into this fraught domain between market, politics and legitimate interests on the part of those involved. Christov-Bakargiev is sure of this, adding, ‘I believe transparency is important and we can also write down some fundamental protocols of ethical behaviour for museum curators and directors. To do this we should organize an international conference with high participation. It is important to clarify what are private museums and what are public museums with inalienable collections as these protocols may be different. But the real problem now seems to me to be in the contrast between art as investment and art as cultural research, as seen in the recent sale of Salvator Mundi [c.1500]’.

Enrico David, Bulbous Marauder, 2008, installation view, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2017. Courtesy: Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; photograph: Gert-Jan van Rooij

Would such a code of practice deter conflicts of interest and preserve independence? ‘Independence isn’t a relevant category, but autonomy is’, Stecker thinks. ‘And one can deal autonomously with all kinds of donations, funding and sponsorship without entering into dependencies. Only when public authorities deprive their directors and curators of this autonomy do they drive them into the realm of dependence.’ For Stecker, like for Christov-Bakargiev, personal ethics is still a key factor. As he puts it: ‘The art operating system has bypassed public self-control and the public canon of artistic values to create a system of values based on hipness and wanting to be in on the action that functions smoothly until the pitcher is broken.’

I’m still outraged time and again when someone in the art business thinks they can have their cake and eat it too. Yet far more outrageous than the behaviour of specific individuals is the hypocrisy of a business that not only puts up with conflicts of interest but actively produces them – and finally instrumentalizes the results as kompromat.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Main image: Cosima von Bonin in 'Jump into the Future – Art from the 90's and 2000's. The Borgmann Donation', installation view, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2017. Courtesy: the museum; photograph: Gert Jan van Rooij

Stefan Kobel is an art historian who has reported on the art market since 2001. In 2015 he won the ADKV – Art Cologne Prize for independent art criticism.