By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
Published: May 11, 2005
We had "Sensation" at the Brooklyn Museum, a gift to Charles Saatchi, whose
collection it advertised, and shows at the Whitney of artists (Robert
Rauschenberg and Agnes Martin come to mind) virtually packaged by the gallery
that represents them. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has been renting its
Monets to a casino in Las Vegas, while the Guggenheim, which gave us the
atrocious "Armani," an even more egregious paid advertisement, is spending
resources shopping itself around the globe while canceling shows here at home.
Illustration by Andy Chen/The New York Times
Every year, in one way or another, museums test the public's faith in their
integrity. When P.S. 1 unveiled "Greater New York" some weeks back, the
exhibition turned out to be a shallow affair in thrall to the booming art
market. No one really should have expected otherwise from an event timed to
coincide with the city's big contemporary-art fair. Meanwhile, P.S. 1's
institutional parent, the Museum of Modern Art, the spanking new headquarters of
Modernism Inc., inaugurated its exhibition program with an appalling paean to a
corporate sponsor's blue-chip collection. This gave the financial services
company, UBS, an excuse to plaster the city with advertisements that made MoMA
seem like its tool and minor subsidiary. You can only imagine how that went over
with another of the Modern's sponsors, J. P. Morgan, UBS's rival.
Now comes the Met with its current Chanel-sponsored Chanel show, a fawning
trifle that resembles a fancy showroom. Sparsely outfitted with white cube
display boxes and a bare minimum of meaningful text, this absurdly uncritical
exhibition puts Coco's designs alongside work by the current monarch of the
House of Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld.
A few years ago, a Chanel show was put off by the Met's director, Philippe de
Montebello, because Mr. Lagerfeld wanted to interfere. It makes no difference
whether he had a direct hand in it this time or, as the museum keeps insisting,
was kept at arm's length from the curatorial process: the impression is the
same, and impressions count when it comes to the reputation of a museum.
Museums deal in two kinds of currency, after all: the quality of their
collections and public trust. Squander one, and the other suffers. People visit
MoMA or the Met to see great art; they will even consider art that they don't
know or don't like as great because the museum says so. But this delicate
cultural ecosystem depends on the public's perception that museums make
independent judgments - that they're not just shilling for trustees or
politicians or sponsors.
Naturally, the public wonders whose pockets are greased by what a museum
shows, because there's so much money involved in art. But this question can be
subordinated if the museum proves that it's acting in the public's interest, and
not someone else's. In turn, museums can call on the public. The New York Public
Library is auctioning some American art, including a couple of Gilbert Stuarts
and an Asher B. Durand that has been a civic landmark for many decades. Some New
York museum ought to end up with the picture but will have to rally public
enthusiasm swiftly - it will have to bank on public trust.
Of course, this is the real world. Museums need trustees to cover the bills.
They depend on galleries and collectors and sponsors and artists for help. Last
year, the Modigliani retrospective at the Jewish Museum had a ridiculous
painting that turned out to belong to a trustee who insisted it be included. No
exhibition of a living artist avoids some negotiation (read: compromise) with
the artist or the artist's dealer. The artist or the dealer may demand that this
picture, not that one, be shown; that new work be stressed; that a certain
collector's holdings be favored; or that the show's catalog be written in a
certain way. It's the cost of doing business.
But there are degrees of compromise. Some years back, the National Gallery in
Washington presented a show of the collection put together by a Swiss
industrialist, Emil Bührle, with a catalog overseen by his heirs that celebrated
his "inner flame" for art but made no mention of the fact that his fortune came
partly from dealing arms to the Nazis, or that his son, who owned many of the
works, was convicted of illegal arms sales. Only the most scrupulous reader of
the fine print would have noticed that a Renoir once belonged to Hermann
The show was about Bührle, so the public could expect to learn who he was.
The Chanel show avoids mentioning her activities during the war, when she
maintained a life in Paris as the lover of an SS officer and, according to her
biographer, Janet Wallach, tried to exploit Nazi laws to wrest control of her
perfume business from her Jewish partners. No doubt, the Bührle show would never
have happened if the National Gallery had emphasized how Bührle sold arms to the
Nazis, and I suspect Chanel would not have been very happy about sponsoring this
show if the Met had been more forthcoming about its founder's wartime history.
Is such information irrelevant to what's on view? It depends.
The public should decide. The Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery
in London makes clear that he was a murderer. His violent personality explains
something about his later work. It would have been irresponsible for the
exhibition not to mention it.
Trust us, museums say: the rules need to bend, and we know how much bending
is enough and how much is too much. In a curious way, commercial galleries are
in a better position. We see where they're coming from. Frank Lloyd Wright had a
saying. At an early age he made a choice between "honest arrogance and
hypocritical humility." He picked arrogance. Galleries are honest about wanting
to sell you something. Museums often traffic in moral hypocrisy - and are then
exploited for their presumptive lofty independence. Chanel couldn't have bought
As for the Met, it says something that it would allow itself to play this
role, just as it says something about the Modern that its first big exhibition
seemed like a corporate payoff.
At least MoMA gets something. The museum will get art from UBS. Mr. Saatchi
made millions recently selling Damien Hirst's shark, whose value was enhanced by
the notoriety of "Sensation." All Brooklyn got was