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
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
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,
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
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
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).
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.