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 by Mon­ty Ous­ley Wed­dell in Dal­las, TX

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