Museums Crossing the Line?: An Interview with Jori Finkel

The New York Times featured yesterday a piece that raises serious questions about the art world. According to the article, some major museums are now allowing art galleries to financially underwrite their exhibitions. And, of course, the galleries often have a direct financial stake in the work on display. This trend, which seems to be growing, naturally prompts questions of influence: are some of the most well-regarded museums letting financing - something that's always in short supply - determine what exhibitions they will put on display? Are the lines between church and state getting crossed? (The museums insist that the answer is no.) Then, there are questions of commerce: are non-profit museums helping for-profit galleries, whether intentionally or not, bump up the prestige and financial value of their artists -- something which almost always redounds to the financial benefit of the galleries?

I had a chance to catch up with Jori Finkel, the author of the article. She's an arts journalist based in LA where she covers contemporary art for The Times, among other places. I asked her a few questions and here's what she had to say:

DC: What's essentially driving the museums to work so closely, perhaps too closely, with galleries? In short, how did we get here?

JF: One thing I discovered in reporting this story is just how common it is for galleries to help out museums behind the scenes—with research, with loans, and with things galleries do in the normal course of business like framing works of art. But it’s much more unusual to find galleries writing checks for museum shows. People I interviewed see this as a sign of the art world spinning out of control or out of balance because of all the money chasing contemporary art lately. The imbalance being that galleries are richer than ever before, while museums, which are not supposed to be part of the market, can find themselves struggling or even begging for funding. A museum director once told me he felt his job was a lot like being a beggar—a glamorous, well-connected beggar, but a beggar.

DC: As I recall, some museums have gotten into trouble when seeking out sponsors for exhibitions in the past -- for example, from some corporations. Is what's happening now any different, and does it raise particularly new ethical concerns?

JF: We saw a number of controversies in the late 1990s over corporate sponsorship—like Armani reportedly gifting the Guggenheim $15 million and getting a show in return, and BMW underwriting a motorcyle show, also at the Guggenheim. Then there was the scandal over the “Sensation” show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which featured works from Charles Saatchi’s personal collection and was funded in part by Saatchi. Several of my sources mentioned these cases because they think gallery sponsorship raises roughly the same set of ethical questions. The only difference they pointed out is that gallery conflicts might have the potential to be more pervasive.

DC: For the sake of argument, let's assume that gallery sponsorship becomes common practice. What are the real risks? Do museums risk undermining their curatorial credibility? Or will the mingling of public and private interests gain acceptance here, just as it so often has elsewhere?

JF: Well, think about payola in the music industry. Most of us would still like to think our radio stations are choosing the songs they play. And with museums, which are supposed to be the guardians of our culture, this is probably even more the case. We’d really like to think our museums are freely choosing the artists and artworks they show, with nobody pulling strings in the background. Nobody wants a museum to become another branch of Gagosian. So, yes, if museums start taking money from galleries left and right, the museums’ credibility, autonomy, independence—or at least the perception of all of the above—are at stake.

DC: Your two main examples in the story are the Takashi Murakami show at MOCA in Los Angeles and the Richard Prince show at the Guggenheim in New York. Both of these artists are highly successful; their works break the million dollar mark at auctions again and again; and the museums are very prominent. Shouldn't it be easy for these museums to find funding for these particular shows without resorting to gallery support? What does it say that we're seeing this questionable method being used in these cases?

JF: It does seem strange. Is there a backlash against these artists somehow? Or these museums? What we do know for sure is that a lot of museums are competing for a limited pool of funding from private collectors, with not a whole lot of government or corporate support on top of that. Plus, for reasons having to do with tourism and civic pride, I’m told that it can be easier to raise $20 million to build a flashy new museum building, or museum wing, than $2 million to put up a new exhibition.

DC: Thanks Jori. For more on this subject, I'd recommend reading her NY Times article in full: Museums Solicit Dealers’ Largess

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  • Museums now act as facilitators! They get things done thru other people, like getting galleries to associate with shows and exhibits, etc. Usually museums have small staffs, sometimes only 1-2 people in management, plus a few hired for maintenance, etc. They now “outsource” their programs to galleries, who of course have an interest in promoting their own artists. This is good for those artists! Why not? Everyone seems to benefit. Lets continue this trend, perhaps is will begin to recognize the “lesser” known artists and give them an opportunity to compete with “masters” works shows that tour nationwide at high costs..Thanks for the presentation – keep up the good work. Thee Art Gallery at weddellart.com by Monty Ousley Weddell in Dallas, TX

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