Art, Money and Power



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

better publicity.



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


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