Museums vs. collectors?

A report from new AWS contributor Leif Magne Tangen

Carte_B.jpgThe debate about the power of the collector has been going on for some time now. An interesting project in Leipzig will certainly raise eyebrows again in this regard.

The Museum of Contemporary Art (Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, or GfZK) is opening its 2008 winter season with an ambitious project: Over the next two years, the museum will invite 11 collections, collectors and galleries to display their collections of art in any way they see fit. No interference. No questions. No veto.

The title of the project says it all: Carte Blanche.

In fact, there is nothing new about collectors being given freedom to do what they want in a museum. We have a prime example only 200 km away from Leipzig, in the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in Berlin. Parts of that public institution now house two private collections, the Sammlung Marx of Erich Marx and, since 2004, the much discussed Friedrich Christian Flick Collection.

Are museums are losing the battle for artists? Today we have more large private collections of contemporary art then ever. We have private galleries that are larger than some museums, doing blockbuster shows. Meanwhile, museums are re-selling parts of their collections and private collectors are hiring curators and consultants to “direct” their collections. Collectors are even building their own museums.

Leipzig director Barbara Steiner says in the introduction to the Carte Blanche project:
“In view of the most recent developments, the often undue influence of collectors, gallery managers and other enterprises on facilities funded by the public purse seems less of a problem than the tendency for private individuals gradually to lose interest in these museum.” She wants to find out “whether new partnerships between public bodies and private supporters can be created at all, how such an interaction might look, what the consequences of such forms of cooperation would be for the development of art and its institutions, also when considered against the background of the establishment of our institute.”

Is there an American view on this? Will private influence destroy the public sphere? Is there too much influence already from private collectors in your view?

p.s. Full disclosure (before I get hunted down by Tyler Green): one of the artists featured in the opening show and in a double solo show later this year, Mark Lombardi, is represented by Pierogi. I work as a director of Pierogi for their Leipzig gallery.

6 thoughts on “Museums vs. collectors?”

  1. The essential question is whether the GfZK initiative is defined primarily as an anti-elitist gesture, in that it opens the institution to a wider variety of sources which, despite the special collections that may be aggrandized by the very fact of exhibition, ultimately has the beneficial effect of making more work available to a larger public. Or whether it is seen as a total capitulation of the public sector to private interests.

    I imagine museums are variously structured throughout Europe, but in a former bastion of the DDR, where the state once had full command of the cultural agenda, public control is most likely the rule. Whereas in the US, museums are not solely public institutions. They are often an amalgamation of public and private. There can be municipal or academic affiliations. But still, all generally have a board of trustees — wealthy, influential private citizens, often collectors in their own right — who raise money, sometimes donating directly, and make collective decisions on hiring (from the director on down), construction, expansion, operations and (of course) what will be exhibited. They might even loan work from their private holdings to a particular exhibition, or gift it to the museum’s permanent collection.

    In the best of all possible worlds, this process would be based solely on philanthropic and aesthetic criteria, on what is good for the institution and its viewing public. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and these decisions can often enrich the very trustees who make them by increasing value, visibility or reputation. How does one tell a powerful collector, sitting on a museum board and possibly in denial, that self interest might be playing a role in the process? Especially if said collector/trustee is accustomed to being in command, and cannot imagine a differential between their own connoisseurship and what the public needs to see.

    In other words, even when the situation is not as obvious as an entire collection being acknowledged by name and given space in the museum, the contradictions between the public arena and private interests are pronounced and essentially unavoidable. Collectors are an oligarchical, elitist group, and they are the source for the art, or for the money the institution must raise in order to purchase the art. They can also establish their own private museums or galleries, hire their own curators and staff, and thereby sidestep the public institutions, even if a public partnership might provide an additional imprimatur.

    So there is an ongoing Apache Dance at least partly acknowledged by Barbara Steiner. The institution must be proud, independent and inviolate. It must have standards and avoid being mishandled. But it cannot be so aloof that it scares off all potential suitors. It must find ways of accommodating the interest and interaction of powerful collectors. The bride must occasionally be stripped bare by her bachelors, even.

  2. Sometimes it helps to think about analogies. If museums were another content business, we might called them “vertically integrated” — in other words, they are both content producers (collecting art and curating exhibitions) and distributors (making them accessible to the public).

    But what if content producers and content distributors were separated? It’s how most other cultural industries work. In the museum sphere, that’s a no-no. The closest museums come to disaggregating content development and content distribution is when they sign on traveling exhibits. But that merely amounts to trading roles amongst themselves.

    Could major private collectors function, in effect, as studios, taking on the financial and logistical costs/risks of developing (buying, storing, even curatorially programming) art content, and with the museums providing the institutional wherewithal to present the content to the general public, if they deem the material viable and up to their standards?

    This arrangement, perfectly commonplace elsewhere, seems to be suspect in the art world, although it is, for all practical purposes, precisely the arrangement Eli Broad has chosen for his collection.

  3. Interesting idea Andras, although it seems unlikely that museums would voluntarily abrogate their function as arbiters of taste. It is their very raison d’etre. Even institutions without permanent collections take pride in their curatorial expertise. If museums gave up creating content, they would become movie theaters, only showing material derived from outside sources. They would need to enter the marketplace and bid against each other for content. They would lose their independence. And it would reduce their in-house curators to the status of projectionists.

    In fact, curating would cease to be meaningful within the institution. The job would by necessity privatize. Curators would become gunslingers, riding shotgun for powerful interests. This is already happening to some extent: Alison Gingeras for Pinault, Mark Coetzee for the Rubells. But since they, and other curators of private collections, coexist with colleagues in the public realm, the tenor of the dialog remains high. An independent, circumspect and seemingly impartial curatorial class, nurtured and sheltered in some institutional or academic framework that removes it from the violence and self interest of the marketplace, seems essential. Otherwise we are in the Wild West.

  4. This response just in from GfZK’s Barbara Steiner.

    For 2008/09, we invited enterprises and collectors to explain the basis of their commitment to art. Each of these embodies in exemplary form a particular position in their association with art. All have a relationship to Leipzig and/or to GfZK but their activities spread beyond the local. Those invited are indeed given carte blanche (CB). The museum’s infrastructure is made available to those invited, and in return, the latter assume all the costs for their project. GfZK is providing an introduction to the fundamental issues under scrutiny in its opening exhibition (“Friendly Enemies”), preparing the conceptual framework in which the project is contained, communicating this to the outside world and holding a series of accompanying events (“CB diskursiv”, e.g. lectures, panels, trips) to examine the role and the significance of private commitment. The aim is to stimulate a debate on the working conditions of institutions, overt and hidden costs, the relationship between private and public involvement.

    1. We invited 6 companies (large, middle and small scale), 2 of them are running commercial art galleries, 4 collectors, 1 circle of friends. We had already worked with some (3 from 10).

    Not all the 4 collectors are showing their collection, e.g. one wants to show an older artist from West-Berlin, Dieter Finke, who was quite known in the 60ies and 70ies but who is nowadays – as this collector says – highly underestimated – and almost invisible. The “Circle of Friends of Hans Brosch” promotes an artist, who wasn´t allowed to work in the GDR and left to the west of Germany in the 80ies. The economic expectations have not been fulfilled. Despite his unique role in the dissident scene of the GDR Brosch hasn´t shown his artworks in major museums since the changes. The two collectors, who show parts of their collection, want to raise a debate about collecting, the responsibility of the collector, his or her relationship to the art market a.s.o. One of the two galleries involved is going to exhibit the strategic decisions of its participation at art fairs. The companies involved either show their initiatives (such as awards for younger artists), their (particular) collection and/or the way they work with the collection (for internal and external use). The participants of CB are considered as model cases for private engagement.

    Economic questions will be constantly raised within the programme, in relation to art, art institutions, art market, politics of visibility a.s.o. They are an intrinsic part of CB.

    2. Giving a CB doesn´t mean that we, the curators of the GfZK lean back and step out of the debate. Of course, it can happen that we are not very happy with the initial proposal and have to accept it due to our CB offer. BUT nobody forbids us to promote a public debate about the issues under scrutiny. To put it differently: We are challenging our partners and they are challenging us. During the course of the projects expectations and limits will be constantly negotiated. And for sure there will be a lot of limitations on all sides.

    In view of the most recent developments, the often undue influence of collectors, gallery managers and other enterprises on facilities funded by the public purse seems less of a problem than the tendency for private individuals gradually to lose interest in these museums. Private collectors no longer need to put pressure on museums. They build their own exhibition spaces, appoint directors of their own choice or even run them themselves. Exhibitions staged by commercial galleries sometimes draw larger numbers of visitors than those staged by traditional museums. Businesses build up their own collections, appoint professional curators and hold exhibitions on their own premises or at other venues. These developments are slowly but surely manoeuvring public art institutions out of the limelight of social recognition and visibility. They are also having effects on the concept of a public sphere in which various social groups articulate, pursue and defend their interests. Private individuals may enter into such debates, but are not obliged to do so. The key-notion of our project therefore is: publicity. The phenomenon we are examining is certainly not new but the way we are dealing with it in public tries to mark a methodological difference.

    What interests us is how such an interaction might look, what the consequences of such forms of cooperation would be for the development of art and its institutions, also when considered against the background of the establishment of our institute. This relationship will have to become the subject of struggle, argument and negotiation – as i already mentioned conducted in public.

    CB is considered to be a research project in a line of projects we did before and will do in the future. After CB we want to focus on alternative economic models, which have been developed by artists.

  5. Steven, the GfZK is in fact a PPP (Public Private Partnership). It gets its funding from diverse public sources (I believe part of it from the city of Leipzig), the rest is supported by Dr. Oetker, who – and I think Barbara will correct me if I am wrong – mirrors the amount they get from public sources. So it is indeed not as public as one would believe it could be. But it is a public institution; it is not allowed to make any profit.

    Anyway, I am interested in the notion of museum. For me the museum is not only a kunsthalle with a collection (most kunsthalles do have their own collection – or collections). It is a place where one should contemplate and discuss issues at hand – such as the CB.

    So, on one hand the project is this show case for collectors, collections and gallerist (will be interesting to hear more about the display of what I am guessing is Eigen+Art and its way to deal with art fairs (they do Armory, Art Basel, Artforum Berlin, Frieze and ABMB each year, but no other fairs). But on the other hand it seems that the off-program (called CB discursive if I am not mistaken) will deals with issues that are interesting for the Museum to discuss, namely how to deal with the private overtaking of public sector in art.

    So, in the end, the question is what happens if one of your collaborators proposes a display that you as a museum find morally problematic? (I remember thinking „ouch“ when I saw that the gas company Verbundnetz Gas AG are participating. What happens if they choose to give a solo show to the much – to put it nicely – discussed Fischer Art. I remember an appeal from GfZK maybe two years ago asking people to sign a petition to get rid of what I remember stated to be Visual garbage in the down town of Leipzig.) This opens up a number of questions about exhibition and curatorial approach in this project. Are there boarders, is it really a carthe blanch for the participating collections?

  6. The GfZK is a PPP. It gets its funding equally from the City of Leipzig, the Free State of Saxony and the Supporters Group, consisting in principle of monies from Arend Oetker, who brings in his private money (not from his holding). Before CB the funds for the programme came mainly from national and international foundations. The Museum was founded in 1996 as a non-profit limited company, in 2003 it turned into a private foundation.

    I share with you, Leif, an interest in the notion of a museum. In this regard I am most interested in the conception of a public sphere no matter how constructed, contingent and out of final reach we must think of it. On our annual programme it says: “The principle of public debate and negotiation of potential common concerns, values and areas of identification in one of the overall objectivities of the GfZK. As many people as possible should be able to participate in the processes that this involves: artitst, visitors, curators, critics, politicians, investors etc. Responsibility for devising the programmes and activities, designed to appeal to different people or groups of people, rests with a number of indviduals.”

    So: What happens if one of our collaborators proposes anything we find morally problematic? First we would try to convince them NOT to do it, we would like to discuss the consequences for us and him/her, exchanging arguments. If he/she insisted to continue we would accept BUT we would also start a public debate about the problematic aspects immediately. Actually I wish that things like this may happen, simply to test the ground and the potential of a true public debate.

    Within the next weeks I would like to post a new entry about the future museum. Actually I would like to speculate about its potential.

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