Tyler Green is, I daresay, the best art blogger in the world. But today he
quite unjustifiably, I think, on Malcom Rogers, the director of the Museum of
Fine Arts in Boston.
Rogers’ crime, in Green’s eyes, is to have loaned 21 of his Monets to the Bellagio
hotel in Las Vegas for an exhibition there. In return, the MFA will probably
receive a seven-figure sum. The Boston Globe has
the story; Green says that the link will expire tomorrow, so I’ve mirrored
The main critic of the arrangement seems to be Christopher Knight, of the LA
Times, who wrote an article on February 3 headlined "A new low in the business
of high art". It’s behind a subscriber firewall, unfortunately, but the
gist of Knight’s complaint is that the Bellagio gallery – which is run
by a subsidiary of art gallery PaceWildenstein – is a for-profit organisation.
[The] MFA could have taken its paintings across Las Vegas Boulevard, ironically,
to the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum, where Boston could actually be lending
its Monet paintings to a fellow cultural institution. But it didn’t… Context
confers meaning. The Monet show’s context is purely commercial. It teaches
audiences that, for an art museum, financial worth is art’s primary value.
Knight has also been widely quoted as saying that the Monet show "is without
intellectual merit" and "is educationally corrupt". But those
quotes are usually taken a little bit out of context: Knight was not writing
a review, and has not seen the show. Rather, he was holding up the MFA’s actions
to the guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors, which say that
the primary considerations that a museum should weigh before making any loan
should be its "intellectual merit and educational benefits".
Let’s ignore Knight’s take on the intellectual and educational merits of the
Monet show, then, since he hasn’t seen it and really can’t say. His substantive
point is that if the MFA loans works to the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum in the
Venetian hotel, that’s fine, whereas if it loans works to the art gallery at
the Bellagio hotel across the street, then that’s beyond the pale.
I don’t see why there’s such a clear distinction to be drawn between the two.
Both hotels use their art galleries as tourist attractions, as a way to appeal
to the slightly more highbrow gamblers in Vegas. In that sense, they’re both
for-profit, commercial concerns. One is run by a pair of museums, while the
other is run by a commercial art gallery, but I’ve seen many excellent gallery
shows and dreadful museum shows. It’s entirely possible that taking an art gallery
and moving it from non-profit to for-profit status could actually make it better.
Knight says, in as many words, that the art gallery at the Bellagio is not a
"cultural institution". Bollocks to that: of course it is!
Tyler Green, however, has actual questions for Rogers. Here they are, with
my own answers.
1. In the Globe story, you conceded that there is a small "issue here."
Could you outline the "issue" and explain why it is a small issue
and not a big one?
The issue here is very similar to the issue of Charles Saatchi sponsoring the
"Sensation" exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In that case, the
value of Saatchi’s own paintings was likely to increase due to their receiving
the imprimatur of a major museum show. Similarly, PaceWildenstein is a major
dealer in impressionist paintings, and in Monets specifically. If this show
is a huge success, they could benefit not only from increased admissions revenues
(which are shared with the MFA), but also from increased prices for their stock
Why is this a small issue and not a big one? Because the market in Monets is
mature, and the chances of a Vegas show increasing the value of PaceWildenstein’s
Monets (assuming they have any) is very small.
Now, it is true that there is a very large chance that PaceWildenstein will
make money from the show directly. But that’s always the case with museum loans:
the only difference here is that the operator of the exhibit is a private, rather
than a public, organisation. And, of course, a public museum is benefitting
as well: the MFA itself, which is getting a tidy sum.
2. Are there groups, people or organizations to whom you would not rent
the art in your museum’s collection? If there are not, please list a few of
them and explain how renting to those groups are different from renting works
to a private corporation gallery that is based in a casino?
A museum’s works should be accessible to the public. If somebody wanted to
rent an MFA Monet so that they could hang it in their front room or otherwise
keep the public from seeing it, the MFA would rightly refuse. Now many art galleries
charge admission – mostly non-profit art galleries, it must be said. Admission
fees, while regrettable, are generally understood to be a necessary evil. If
the MFA loaned out 21 Monets to a public art gallery, there would still be admission
fees. But the fact that the admission fees go to a private rather than a public
organisation does not change the degree to which the art is accessible to the
3. In Edgers’ story, he (apparently) paraphrases you asking how people
can be so critical of a show they haven’t seen? Why is it not fair to criticize
the concept of a museum renting out work to a for-profit gallery in a casino,
regardless of what the resulting show is?
It is fair to criticize the concept of a museum renting out work to
a for-profit gallery in a casino. Knight wrote an opinion piece, and he’s more
than free to express his opinion that what the MFA did was wrong. Similarly,
the MFA is more than free to defend its actions. What is weird is when Knight
criticizes not the concept, but the show itself, calling it "without intellectual
merit". How could he make that judgment without seeing the show? In fact,
on the very same page of the newspaper, Suzanne Muchnic describes the show as
"beautifully installed", and nowhere gives the impression that it
is in any way sub-par.
4. The Guggenheim runs an accredited space at the Venetian Hotel. If this
is really about sharing your Monets with culturally bereft Las Vegas, as you
say, why not loan your Monets to the Vegas Guggenheim? Is it because they wouldn’t
pay you $1M+ and someone else would? Did you explore all available options regarding
showing the Monets at an accredited, non-profit space?
As far as the art-going public is concerned, the benefit to them is more or
less identical whether they pay $15 to see Monets at the Venetian or $15 to
see Monets at the Bellagio. So the MFA was faced, hypothetically, with two choices:
- Give the Vegas public the benefit of access to the Monets; or
- Give the Vegas public the benefit of access to the Monets, and give the
MFA – a cash-strapped museum in need of funds – a million bucks.
Seems like a no-brainer to me.
Where is the advantage to the Vegas public in seeing the paintings at "an
accredited, non-profit space"? Does that make the paintings any better?
Where is the advantage to the MFA in lending the paintings to such a space?
The MFA certainly doesn’t get more money. It’s worth turning the question around:
why should the MFA embrace the Venetian rather than the Bellagio? What is the
non-financial value of this "accreditation" of which you speak?
In fact, since we’re dealing in hypotheticals here, here’s another one. Let’s
say the Horseshoe Casino in Vegas opened up its own gallery, accredited by the
Kalamazoo Art Club, a non-profit organisation dedicated to showing pretty pictures
to people. Would you prefer that the Monets went there, even if they weren’t
nearly as well hung, and even if the admission price was bumped to, say, $30?
What is the magical value of non-profit status?
5. In talking with Suzanne Muchnic of the LA Times, you justified your
decision to rent out your Monets by saying that you are always looking for "new
funding source[s]." Museums do more than show art, a significant part of
their mission is to preserve cultural legacies that are important to humankind.
Is treating art as a "funding source" appropriate given a museum’s
mission? Can you give us some examples of what would be inappropriate funding
sources for a museum?
All museums treat art as a funding source. Every time they sell a postcard,
license an image, loan a painting, or charge an admission fee to see art, they
receive money in return. Ultimately, it seems fair to say that every penny that
every art museum has ever received is in some way leveraged off the art in that
museum. So the question isn’t whether it’s appropriate to treat art as a funding
source; the question is what types of uses of art as a funding source are inappropriate.
I’ve already said that loaning a painting to an individual who would not let
the public have access to it would be inappropriate. More generally, selling
art is something which museums should think long and hard about before doing,
especially if they’re selling to a private collector as opposed to another museum.
But more importantly, preserving a cultural legacy is in no way inconsistent
with showing art to as many different people as possible. Ultimately, any cultural
legacy is going to die out if nobody sees it, and the more people who see a
body of art, the more of a cultural legacy it is likely to become. If the private
sector is better at bringing art to people than the non-profit sector is, then
all power to them, and may a hundred relationships such as the one between the
MFA and the Bellagio blossom.