Friday, January 11, 2008

A Surprise and Not a Surprise

Two events occurred this past week in the art world, one that caught me off guard and another that didn't surprise me in the least. Oddly enough, I think for most people, the news affected them in the opposite manners.

The first event was the announcement of the inimitable Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, that he would step down from his position by the end of 2008 or whenever a suitable replacement was found.

Mr. de Montebello is 71 and has served as the director of the Met for 30 years. So why then did the news shock me? Well, perhaps in part due to the partial misdirection of a New York Times article from this past July that stated and restated emphatically that Mr. de Montebello had no plans to retire.

But there was something a bit odd in the tone of the article; on the one hand it kept insisting that Mr. de Montebello did not intend to retire, while on the other hand it mentioned that, "if his impending retirement really isn’t on Mr. de Montebello’s mind, it’s on the mind of just about everyone else at the Met, including the trustees and curators, who are powerfully aware that he is the last of a breed" as well as the names of several possible successors. Given this week's news, now I wonder: did the reporter have some secret knowledge as to de Montebello's real plans that he simply wasn't at liberty to divulge? One thing I do know for certain however, regardless of who the next director of the Met will be, Mr. de Montebello will be one tough act to follow.

The second event, the one that I did not find surprising but that has apparently left the art world--and in particular the Los Angeles art scene--reeling is that Eli Broad has announced that he will not donate his collection to any one museum, but rather will keep it in his foundation and lend it out for educational purposes. This news has hit the Los Angeles County Museum of Art particularly hard as they are about to unveil in February the brand new Broad Contemporary Art Museum on their campus. The reason given by Mr. Broad for why he made this decision was that over the past year he has become increasingly aware of the fact that no museum could guarantee that a sizable percentage of his collection would be on view, thereby leaving some in storage out of the public eye. This proposition didn't sit well with Mr. Broad's desire that his collection be available for educational purposes at all times.

Now, given that Mr. Broad gave a substantial amount of money to LACMA to build the new BCAM and that the intent seemed to be that the new museum would be populated by a fair number of pieces from the Broad collection, I suppose it was only natural that LACMA officials assumed that Mr. Broad would donate the pieces--or perhaps the entire collection--to the new museum. But no formal agreement was ever made to that effect and as far as I'm aware, Mr. Broad never even gave any part of his collection as a "promised gift;" his intention was always to lend rather than give. That's why I'm not surprised by this situation.

What's more, a quick trip to the Broad Art Foundation website shows very clearly that Mr. Broad's decision is not a new stance for him:

The Broad Art Foundation operates as an educational and lending resource for contemporary art and is dedicated to building a collection that reflects the scope and diversity of the art of our time...The Broad Art Foundation assists museums striving to present contemporary art in a complex economic and cultural climate. While private collectors can limit the accessibility of contemporary artists' work, the Foundation's collection is available for loan to museums and university galleries through its "lending library" program. [source]

Now, what is a perhaps a little surprising to me is Mr. Broad's statement that he believes that museums should share artworks and that other collectors should follow his "new model" of serving as a lending library rather than giving donations of art. I am inclined to agree with art blogger and curator Marshall Astor when he says that this belief of Broad's is a bit naive. Astor looks at it from a curatorial standpoint:
If this became the norm, I really have trouble seeing a museum curator of contemporary works in say 2030 being able to build a really concise and meaningful permanent exhibit. Identity, that is the identity of the collection, is what makes museums work. Were collectors en masse to follow Broad’s proposed model, the long term development of comprehensive and meaningful collections could become a Sisyphean task.

However, I also think that other collectors would be reluctant to follow Mr. Broad's example because, like it or not, a huge incentive for donating to museums is financial--without a donation, there is no tax deduction.

But the real question still remains: what will LACMA do to populate the new building? Will they display mostly pieces on loan from the Broad Art Foundation, or will they instead start looking elsewhere for other contemporary art collectors willing to donate?

No comments: