Does who owns art change it?

imagesA couple of weeks ago Tyler Green posted an interesting interview with New Museum director Lisa Phillips about her institution’s decision to put on shows drawn solely from various high profile collections (Dakis Joannou, New Museum trustee, will be the first beneficiary of the new curatorial program).  I’m happy to debate the merits of such a program (I see the conflicts, but I also see the value too), but what caught my interest was this loaded question of Green’s:

Do you worry that your decision could reinforce the notion that art is a luxury owned by the privileged few rather than a means through which artists engage communities and nations and societies in a broader discourse?

My response in reading this was: “Why can’t it be both?”  That much art–and much of what we recognize as the best and most important art–has always been a luxury good is of course no defense for why it should or will always be so, but it seems to me that the opposition that Green puts into play here is a false one.  I don’t see how a “luxury,” which I take simply to mean a good or service that comes with a high price tag, is inherently incapable of engaging with “communities and nations and societies.”  Who “owns” this luxury, especially if that luxury is work of art, should have little to do with whether the work is engaged in a “broader discourse.”  This leads me to a series of questions:

Does a work of art’s level of engagement change whether it is publicly or privately owned?  Is any given work of art’s level of engagement (as given in Green’s question) externally determined–by which I mean, is it a function of where, how and to whom it is displayed?  Or is this engagement internal to the work, implicit within its structure?  And would a work of art owned by, say, Noam Chomsky bear a different level of engagement than if the same work of art were owned by, say, Donald Trump?  (It scares me to state that, on that last one, I don’t know if the answer is all that clear.)

6 thoughts on “Does who owns art change it?”

  1. Try this thought experiment. Imagine an abstract painting, say, a red rectangle, “Untitled #1.” Now affix these lines, one by one, next to its title:

    Loan, Centre Pompidou, Paris
    Loan, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
    Purchase made possible by the Rockefeller Foundation
    Donation, from the personal collection of Clement Greenberg
    From the collection of Charles Saatchi
    MoMA, bequest of Mr. & Mrs. Ganz
    Collection of the artist
    Donated by the National Lottery Fund
    Previously owned by Elton John
    Seized from the collection of Bernard Madoff

    Is there a subtle difference in how one would engage with the work, once in possession of this information? Arguably so.

    Acknowledging the difference, however, does not answer the question whether public or private ownership is intrinsically “good” or “bad” in terms of how the work would be received.

  2. Back in 1975 Hans Haacke pointed to the sometimes unsavory histories of private ownership with a project based on the ownership history of Seurat’s Les Poseuses- displaying this little Seurat painting of bathers along with the history of rich and influential European and American collectors. So yes, sometimes works have a kind of history that most museums are not eager to announce next to the works. But in my experience, most regular audience members don’t pay a great deal of attention on how the artwork got there- at least it doesn’t significantly alter the way they feel about the work, unless in extreme cases where the show is a giant advertisement of a corporate collection or individual. What is troubling to me is to think that it is possible to adequately represent the scope of contemporary art practice today mainly through private collections. The purpose of a private collection is very different to the mission of a public institution, which in an ideal world should support not only work that fits in a collection but also artists who are uncollectible – that is, who make work that a private collection could not be possibly interested. This is true of a lot of performance-based work and of a lot of multi-disciplinary work. it is true that sophisticated art collections do support the more diaphanous art making practices- Dia was partially conceived in this way- but I would hope that institutions would not expect private collectors do their work for them. Intelligent curating today is actually much harder to do than just doing one-stop shopping.

  3. I’m in the minority of folks I know (all of whom would like to see NuMu continue to honor Marcia’s original mission) on whether this exhibition can do so or not. For me, the measure of whether it’s appropriate for NuMU will depend on my response to the actual exhibition, not just the idea of it. If, walking through it, all I can think is “My Lord, what an awful lot of money this collector must have,” then the exhibition will be a failure. If the question of who actually owns the work is wholly irrelevant to me as I view the show (and I’m not an entirely disinterested person on that point)— because the work and the choices overwhelm that fact—then I’m more willing to think that hard-and-fast rules on such matters are not all that helpful.

    Personally, I think the over-riding component of NuMu’s mission in New York is to challenge the conventional wisdom, so that there is an arena in which all artists with new ideas have opportunities to voice them. I’m not sure this exhibition as planned is entirely at odds with that. Indeed, and ironically, the notion that it’s impossible to present the work from a private collection without a conflict of interest in a publicly funded institution is firmly rooted in ideas that make up the conventional wisdom.

    The proof for me will be in the exhibition.

    I realize that leaves things wide open for institutions to do a show from a private collection, have the critics pan it, but still justify doing so because there had been the potential to transcend the market implications. Then again, the more times such exhibitions fail (and how can they until someone tries them), the stronger the argument becomes that they are always conflicts of interest and that there are no curators or directors talented enough to make them less so. At the moment, I feel that’s still open for debate.

  4. I think there are two aspects to the public perception of Art provenance. One is the work itself, however it us hung, in the context of the works beside it, and in the context of the other works that might exist within the minds of a given observer. This will of course vary from observer to observer as their own contexts will vary and I tend to agree with both Pablo and Ed that the work itself speaks louder at that point than the small print text on the wall.

    The second aspect, however, is the announcement that brings the viewer into the display location in the first place. Here, I would suggest, the works’ provenance, whether respected institution, famed collector or simple celebrity, has a significant impact on who comes to view the work and the assumptions they make walking into the building.

    Celebrity sells in all contexts and I assume that is why the New Museum has gone down this avenue. Every celebrity has his/her audience and perhaps the institution is after new faces through its doors or perhaps it is just a response to market conditions. I just hope they are rigorous when it comes to choice of famed collector and careful to edit collections shown. But here, at the point of marketing where the potential viewer makes the decision to visit the exhibition or not, a connection gets made in the viewer’s mind between the collector and the work, and that will affect, to a degree, the way they view the works on the walls as they visit.

  5. This debate is perhaps symptomatic of the sea changes that are going on in the relationship between public and private institutions. I feel that the criticism of the New Museum is very misplaced or poorly focused in Tyler Green’s loaded gun of questions. Dakis Joannou’s collection and Deste Foundation ( ) is a leading example of a small group of private collectors who are putting something of quality together that is on a level to provide a serious, scholarly, and well-researched challenge to long established institutions. I have seen bits and pieces of this collection over the last five years and am consistently astonished at the depth and quality of the individual selections of works by artists represented.

    It is not a good thing to let a certain kind of puritanism make one blind to the possibility that private people may be or have better curators at their disposal than state sponsored institutions or publicly funded exhibition halls.

  6. This is my maiden post here at Artworld Salon.

    First, a disclaimer: Lisa Phillips used to work for/with me when i was director of the Whitney, and we remain friends. I also sit on the board of the New Museum affiliate Rhizome.

    The first thing to consider is that Lisa and her colleagues arrive at decisions in an admirably non-hierarchical fashion. I have observed that the voices of junior colleagues are taken every bit as seriously as that of those more experienced.

    Next, this museum is a kunsthalle, not a collecting museum, and more to the point, an institution that remains open to its re-invention. They seem to me, in their failed projects as well as their successes, to recognize that the idea of what a contemporary art institution is and does must continually change. And that change should not be simply limited to the nature of the program, but to the structure and direction of the institution as well. This is one reason why non-collecting institutions are so very important to the art world ecology.

    Now that said, the decision to exhibit the Deste Foundation Collection is not such a radical idea. The collection is already owned by a foundation, and the patron is known to be a real collector, not a net-seller (like Saatchi) or the owner of a major auction house and gallery (like Pinault). And by REAL collector, I mean, it is not simply an investment hedge, or a social ploy, but that Dakis is passionate about his role as a collector and patron of young, unproven artists, and has demonstrated a serious commitment to a point of view he developed with the help of some remarkable curators, dealers and artists.

    In short, his collection constitutes an interesting text, and deserves to be read and considered. I have had the pleasure of seeing several exhibitions drawn from his collection in Athens, and have been enormously impressed by his ability to acquire the right work from artists at precisely the right moment. This collection might never be seen by an American audience if not for this opportunity, and finally, the chance to see these works contextualized within a serious collection is itself a gift.

    And of course, it would be great if this collection eventually finds its way into a permanent collecting museum’s home. I imagine it eventually will, but Dakis is still in the active collecting phase, and is probably not ready to make that kind of decision. (And by the way, I hope it stays in Greece, and serves as the basis for the ongoing education of that community.)

    But what the New Museum show will provide is a chance for Dakis to get important critical feedback, and the opportunity for the New york community to engage with and take pleasure from this remarkable collection.

    It is so not about making this collection more valuable. It is so not about an institutional ego stroke for Dakis, and it is clearly not a bold-faced attempt to woo a collector in order to get in line for the eventual collection gift. (I have done that several times in my career, and it is a very different undertaking.)

    Yes, the dictum first laid out by Thomas Hoving holds true: all museum directors are, in a sense, whores. As he stated, “once you’ve made the decision to stand beneath the streetlights, it’s simply a matter of how much rouge you are willing to wear.” And though Dakis has been a serious financial benefactor to the New Museum, I do not see this as a quid pro quo, or the beginning stage of a collection gift deal.

    I see it as a great opportunity appropriately seized by an alert and engaged museum director and curatorial staff. The proof, of course, will be in the exhibition itself. And I for one look forward to it with great anticipation.

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