Monet in Vegas

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

it here.

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.

Writes Knight:

[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

of paintings.

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

general public.

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.

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11 Responses to Monet in Vegas

  1. Nate Martin says:

    Yes, yes, yes, yes and absolutely yes. You’ve nailed it exactly.

    Thank you.

  2. erika says:

    Decades ago, when I lived in Las Vegas, I enjoyed lots of wonderful top quality jazz performances for the price of two drinks in casinos. I would have loved to see beautiful art as well. I would have had no problems looking at pictures, exhibited well, in a casino.


  3. Tyler Green says:

    But the issue isn’t where the art is, it’s how it got there…

  4. Katharine says:

    Call me selfish, but I’d rather keep the Monets in Boston. We are promised an amazing collection of big names and we can’t find any when we get in. That’s why Bostonians don’t go to the MFA. He can’t expect to draw in repeat visitors with exhibitions like the car show next year if the museum’s crowd-pleasers are in Vegas (or worse, back from Vegas and too fragile to be shown on our walls). I’m tired of going down there only to find that the Monet’s have been shipped off and half the galleries are “closed in preparation for the new wing”. It’s all bs to get us excited about a new courtyard and cafe and I’m sick of it.

  5. Nate Martin says:

    Based on the articles I read, there are at least 8 Monet oil paintings still on the walls at the MFA, and only 4 paintings were removed from view for the Bellagio show. I realize that Bostonians have high expectations for culture, but that still seems pretty impressive. It probably surpasses the number available at any museum in the country short of the Met, the National Gallery or a scant handful of other museums in major american cities. I can’t argue in favor of the guitar show or the car show, I don’t know the specifics of the expansion project, and I can’t claim that Malcolm Rogers is really a sweet, misunderstood guy. I do, however, think that complaining about being deprived because paintings were taken (almost entirely) out of storage and sent to another city seems a little bit strange.

  6. Symphony X says:

    Felix on Tyler on Rodgers

    Felix Salmon weighs in on the question of whether the MFA was right to loan paintings to a for-profit institution. Ignoring the slippery slope questions, which are, of course, themselves a slippery slope as to when to engage in them,…

  7. “But the issue isn’t where the art is, it’s how it got there…”

    What about the arrangement bothers you then? Is it the deal itself, or that you feel it is a slippery slope?

  8. Max says:

    If a Beltway-based Hilton Kramer disciple like Tyler Green represents the best of art blogging, I think this says more about the sad state of art blogging, does it not? You have a great site here Felix: you write very well, and you’ve called out Green and fellow neocon art traveler Terry Teachout on some weak arguments. Why give props to the one eyed experts in the land of the blind, when you can do better yourself?

    Oh, it’s fun (if sooo predictable) to be hatin’ on Chelsea gallery types and pretentious contemporary art, but I like my art criticism with a wee bit more open-mindedness and a lot more depth, thanx.

  9. MemeFirst says:

    Money vs Art

    Regular readers of 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…

  10. 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…

  11. Ava says:

    Ever wonder if there are any Monets lodged away in someone’s closet – forgotten? What do you think value would be for a Monet today if such happened? I love his work and this just came to mind. Great web site. Thank you.

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