Monet in Vegas, part 2

Joseph Clarke, over at unfolio, calls me one "of the blogosphere’s great

arts writers" today, which is more than enough reason for me to link

to him. He also joins in the Monet

debate, and adds some new arguments of his own as to why "it is wrong

to think that a non-profit museum and a for-profit gallery can offer the same

cultural service to the public".

Of course, the two types of institution perform different roles, both necessary

in their own way. And you’ll never find me saying that we might as well do away

with the Whitney so long as Larry Gagosian’s got his space in Chelsea. But in

the context of the issue at hand, it’s also worth pointing out that we’re dealing

with Tyler Green’s hypothetical

here, in which he asks why Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts loaned its Monets to

the Bellagio rather than to the Venetian, which houses the Vegas branch of the

Guggenheim.

In this context, I really don’t see that there would be much of a difference

at all between an MFA Monet show at one and an MFA Monet show at the other. Might the Bellagio’s audio

guides come in slightly more languages? Might the Guggenheim’s catalogue be

more academically rigorous? Whatever. To all intents and purposes, the galleries

in the two casinos would offer exactly the same cultural service to the public.

After all, we’re talking Vegas here: the presence of Dave Hickey notwithstanding,

the audience for this show is not going to be the kind of people who read catalogue

essays for pleasure.

Nevertheless, Joseph makes a couple of points which are worth addressing.

According to the MFA’s mission statement, "the Museum’s ultimate aim

is to encourage inquiry and to heighten public understanding and appreciation

of the visual world." By contrast, the raison d’etre of a for-profit gallery

– or any for-profit business — is to make money. This means that while the

MFA values Monet paintings in cultural and artistic terms, the Bellagio values

them in dollars and cents.

This is true, and something the MFA should bear in mind when it enters into

deals such as the one it has with the Bellagio. When the MFA loans its paintings

to another non-profit institution, it can work on the assumption that both institutions

have the same goals. If the paintings are going to a for-profit gallery, on

the other hand, the MFA has to be sure that the show will advance its own goals

as well as those of the gallery in question.

But it’s easy to overstate this point. Even when the MFA is loaning paintings

to a fellow museum, it should still examine the proposed show very carefully.

Sub-par curatorial standards crop up in shows at non-profit and for-profit galleries

alike, and it’s up to the lending institution to ensure that its works don’t

get abused in an unbefitting setting. So long as the Bellagio show meets the

MFA’s standards, the fact that the Bellagio is a for-profit institution should

be neither here nor there. Similarly, if a museum does not meet the MFA’s standards,

Boston would be wrong to part with its paintings anyway, just because they’d

be going to a non-profit institution.

More importantly, though, the MFA and the Vegas Guggenheim are "public

space" in a sense that the Bellagio gallery is not. The Bellagio did not

choose the Monet paintings for the general edification of the denizens of Las

Vegas; it chose those paintings–over millions of other works of art it could

have sought to display–for financial reasons. A non-profit museum might have

opted to show different paintings.

Different, maybe, although as I understand it the choice of Monets was largely

left to the MFA, rather than to the Bellagio. But I have to admit I don’t quite

understand Joseph’s point here. Is he simply saying that different galleries

do their shows in different ways? That’s true whether or not they’re non-profit.

Rather, he seems to be saying that a show which is driven by financial considerations

will, prima facie, be culturally inferior to a show driven by purely

cultural considerations.

I’m not convinced. The high-minded non-profit cultural institution across the

street has spent most of its short life showing The Art of the Motorcycle,

while the Bellagio has been showing Warhols and Monets. Could it be –

could it possibly be – that the need to make a buck might actually

make a show better? Look at all the stodgy old museums in the former

East Germany. When they stopped sitting on their arses and started trying to

attract a paying audience to justify their existence, standards went up,

not down.

The art a gallery chooses to display will, in turn, have a direct effect

on who comes to view it. We cannot really speak of different galleries’ giving

"the art-going public" equal opportunities to view art when the "publics"

that may patronize them are different.

We can’t? Why on earth not? If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that Joseph

was valuing the traditional museum-goer over the lumpenproletariat

who might be attracted to a well-marketed for-profit art show. If the Bellagio

succeeds in attracting a different audience from the kind of people who go to

the MFA in Boston, so much the better! It would be genuinely shocking

if the MFA were to turn to the Bellagio and say, in effect, "well, you

might attract a lot of people to the show, but we’re not sure they’re the

right kind of people, do you know what we mean?"

It is certainly part of the MFA’s mission to ensure that its artistic treasures

are seen by as wide a cross-section of the general public as possible. I can

think of no better way to achieve that than to send a group of paintings (a)

to a city thousands of miles away, where most of the visitors will never have

been to Boston; and (b) to a small private gallery in a casino, from a large

public gallery in a city. The audience will be completely different? Perfect!

It may be argued that the distinction between public and private galleries

is, in this case, purely theoretical; that this specific rental does not, in

fact, violate the public trust. This may be true. But given the dangerous precedent

this arrangement sets, and given Rogers’ seemingly flippant attitude towards

the controversy, it is critical that we ask the questions Tyler has articulated,

to see that Monet’s trip to Vegas does not push us down a slippery slope of

arts privatization.

Ah, yes. Dangerous precedents and slippery slopes. Thin end of the wedge, and

all that. Malcom Rogers might just be toking on a cigarette right now, but before

long he’ll be freebasing cocaine under a railway bridge somewhere.

The thing is, in this case I’m far from convinced that the highly-addictive

art-world crack cocaine in question – arts privatization – is necessarily

a bad thing. I say this not because I think it’s necessarily good, but because

I think we’ve seen so little of it that it’s far too early to tell whether it’s

good or bad.

Certainly, I can think of examples of for-profit organisations putting out

culturally-dubious material in order to make money. It happens quite frequently

in the classical music world, where classical radio stations play "bleeding

chunks" rather than entire pieces, and the Three Tenors clean up with their

accessible medleys while high-minded opera houses struggle to stay out of the

red even after receiving large state subsidies.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see how the private sector might be more efficient

than the public sector in a lot of cases. For instance, Philippe de Montebello,

the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gets

paid $866,583 a year, while president David McKinney gets another $601,905.

Beneath them are a staggering 1,800

full-time employees.

Now, I’m not saying the Met should be privatized. But there’s no doubt that

non-profits can be sluggish, bloated, and unoriginal. Just look at the New York

Philharmonic (Zarin Mehta, executive director: $750,000 a year).

Anybody who’s

spent much time in any part of the non-profit sector will attest to rampant

mismanagement, often linked to out-of-control egos and a sense of entitlement

among the independently wealthy people who usually end up founding and staffing

such places. There is no doubt in my mind that given a modest endowment and

non-profit status, the Bellagio art gallery could start making substantial losses

in no time at all. And would the quality of the programming there improve as

a result? I doubt it very much.

Both the Guggenheim and the MFA have ventured into Vegas. The Guggenheim spent

a fortune on a Rem Koolhaas art gallery which almost nobody went to visit; the

MFA, if you will, outsourced its Vegas operation to the private sector. Financially

and organisationally, the Guggenheim Las Vegas has been a complete disaster,

while the MFA’s Monet show is quite the opposite. Yet the cognoscenti remain

happily ensconced in their prejudices, denouncing the MFA show just because

it’s making money, and asking whether it couldn’t be shown across the street

instead. Slippery slope? Slide away, Mr Rogers. We might just love what lies

at the bottom.

UPDATE: This is almost too good to be true, but back over at Modern Art Notes today, Tyler Green links to a review of a new Rothko show, saying “This show is my early leader for best show of 2004″. Click over to the review itself, and you find it starting thusly: “Among the many exhibitions of Mark RothkoÌs paintings I have seen over the course of many yearsÛand this includes major museum retrospectivesÛthe two that have most profoundly defined for me the quality of his artistic achievement have both been organized at the PaceWildenstein Gallery.” PaceWildenstein, of course, is the gallery which is putting on the Monet show in Vegas.

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5 Responses to Monet in Vegas, part 2

  1. Of course everybody knows private businesses are more efficient than non-profits. It is illogical to conclude that because something is inefficient, it is unnecessary. When a public institution starts receiving a significant amount of funding from private businesses, it is no longer public.

    We can all have a nice chuckle over “slippery slope” arguments, but does anyone seriously believe a museum that heads down that path will be able to stop at just one million-dollar rental? As I said in my post, this particular deal may not seriously violate the MFA’s public trust. But because it is venturing into unexplored territory, and because Malcolm Rogers has taken such a casual attitude to the whole controversy, it is perfectly legitimate to demand a clarification of the museum’s new policy on dealing with private institutions.

  2. Dave Thomas says:

    Felix, I would agree with Clarke. You truly are one of the greats. How do you do it?

  3. Incongruencies

    I am looking at the Eiffel Tower. Not the one that gives you a view of Paris, but the one splayed over a Las Vegas hotel called Paris.

  4. MemeFirst says:

    Money vs Art

    Regular readers of felixsalmon.com might recall that I devoted two posts last year to the controversy over a for-profit exhibition of Monet paintings in Las Vegas. I took issue with the idea that non-profit arts organisations are pure and noble…

  5. MemeFirst says:

    Green’s spleen II

    Tyler is begging for links, so I’ll give him one. He’s written an op-ed for the Boston Globe, recapitulating all his old bellyaching about Malcom Rogers, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and renting out paintings to the Bellagio…

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