Saturday, 5 December 2009

New Museum Joannou Exhibition controversy

The recent blog entries and articles in the New York Times and New York Magazine about the exhibition of Dakis Joannou's contemporary art collection have been fun to read. Deborah Sontag (Times) Jerry Saltz (New York and blog) and Tyler Green (Art Newspaper and Modern Art Notes) were venting pretty actively there for a few days in November. Not being personally familiar with the individuals involved, I've been thinking about this all from my Baldwin City, Kansas vantage point and trying to sort it all out.

The New Museum has scheduled an exhibition of works from the Joannou collection, a widely admired private collection of contemporary art housed in a private museum in Greece and never seen in this country. The collection includes 40 works by Jeff Koons, an art celebrity whose early work inspired Mr. Joannou to collect contemporary art. Jeff Koons will be the curator of the exhibition. Among the concerns stated are that Joannou is a trustee of the New Museum; that Koons is not a curator, will likely be choosing his own work for the exhibition, and is beholden to Joannou as a major collector of his work; and that by showing the collection the New Museum increases its value, thereby financially benefitting its trustee. Several of the writers also are very critical of museums showing private collections at all. Additional blog information documents a range of connections in this instance between the New Museum staff members, the collector, several artists, and the dealer Gavin Brown.

Museum codes of ethics usually include a statement that trustees should not profit personally from their association with the museum. More specifically, museums should not exhibit the collections of their trustees. Obviously, the trustees, who hire (and fire) the director, should not use their power to influence the artistic decisions made by the museum staff and should not use their positions to enhance their own reputations as collectors or the value of their collections through exhibiting them in a museum over which they have fiduciary responsibility. This rule is especially important because most museums have trustees whose collections are not appropriate for exhibition in their museum, but who want to have their collections displayed. The ethical rule saves the museum staff from the danger of offending museum supporters and saves the audience from being puzzled as to why objects unrelated to the museum's mission or of inferior quality are on view.

So, when the trustee has a collection that is widely praised and internationally respected, it presents a conflict between following the standard codes of ethics and taking advantage of a rare opportunity to have an exhibition of interest. In some circumstances it may be more in the public's interest to show the collection than to adhere to standards. From the standpoint of the ordinary museum goer with an interest in contemporary art the Joannou exhibition would appear to make a contribution to the New York art scene, especially if it includes major or exciting works of art that have not been seen publicly in New York before, or have only been seen in the galleries from which Joannou purchased them.

There has also been an argument that museums should never offer exhibitions of private collections, on the principle that they are vanity opportunities for the collector, lazy on the part of the museums, misleading to the public by giving more importance to the collections (collectors) than they may deserve, and that they raise the commercial value of the objects in the collection. In many cases, museums display private collections that have been donated or are promised gifts to the museum, eliminating the possibility that the collectors will sell the objects after having received that museum imprimatur.

These commercial possibilities involved in showing private collections are indeed problematic. Nonetheless, there are instances when private collections provide a unique educational opportunity for museum visitors. Sometimes private collectors have acquired groups of objects that are unavailable in museums anywhere and an exhibition of these collections is enlightening to the public and provides a unique scholarly resource as well. Collectors have individual tastes (unless they are completely dependent on art consultants, which is another issue) and it is fascinating to see which works and which artists engage one individual, as well as to have an insight into the process of forming a collection. People love visiting private collections. But visiting collectors' homes is not possible for most people and the exhibition of a collection in a museum is a more democratic way of sharing the art. (I love the way Jerry Saltz slips into his column that he has seen Joannou's collection; so we know he's an insider.)

The argument that the exhibition might increase the value of the works of art seems moot, since if the Joannou collection is as famous as it sounds, then the imprimatur of the collector should be adequate to make the objects valuable. Also, given the artists in the collection whose names have been published, their values are already beyond the means of most museums and art lovers, making the likely impact on prices of a museum exhibition minimal. On the other hand, without knowing exactly what will be in the exhibition, perhaps Joannou owns a lot of relatively unknown work that would increase in value by being exhibited in New York and Koons might choose it to show. He could make those choices because he thinks the work deserves seeing, or he might want to do the artists a favor. That is a potential problem.

Since Koons is not trained as a curator, his reasons for including works in the exhibition may be very different from the normal ones we attribute to curators. We think curators choose the very best objects, based on their years of training, careful thought, and perceptive vision, and perhaps an overriding concept that drives an exhibition. However, personal factors may also have weight for museum curators. A curator could be swayed by something an artist says, by the obvious preferences of the collector, by personal and professional alliances of all sorts, as well as by physical limitations of the space of the gallery.

The choice of Koons as curator of the exhibition seems intriguing to me. I would be interested in what he wanted to show from a large collection and I think organizing an exhibition from an artist's point of view is appealing, even if it is from a collection in which he is strongly represented. Which of his own works would he want to show? Would he be vain enough to include an immodest number of his own works? Does he have interesting ideas about art? Does he have anything interesting to say? One blogger decries Koons as curator because he sees it as further reducing the curators' role in museums. Granted, curators seem to be under fire in many circumstances, but they are also often overworked, organizing more exhibitions than they have time to do justice. It is not clear if the curators/director chose Koons to organize this exhibition, but if they did, that would suffice as a curatorial decision, not unlike the choice of an artist to organize exhibitions from museums' own collections, a popular practice in recent years, for example at the Metropolitan and Cooper Hewitt Museums.

What was most troubling about this project, however, were statements made later in blogs about the personal, social connections between the collector, the museum director, the curators, the artists the museum shows, and one dealer. Everybody seems to hang out together. For a museum to present four one-person exhibitions in two years of artists from one dealer - who also represents the spouse of the curator responsible for one of the exhibitions - is troubling. Even though I've been working in the art world for decades, I still imagine that museums choose to show the artists they think are most compelling and whom they want to share with a wider audience for intellectual, aesthetic, and possibly political reasons. But what if the art is not compelling and we are struggling to appreciate something that is exhibited as the result of personal or commercial alliances? Those tangles of associations endanger the museum's public trust and call into question the whole contemporary art enterprise. For the last few weeks it has left me pretty cynical about most contemporary exhibitions.

And, come to think of it, aside from being enormously famous, what is it about Jeff Koons that would make me want to see an exhibition for which he is the curator?

No comments:

Post a Comment