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Art Exhibitions as Financial Rainmakers?


by Jerome Weeks 4 Aug 2008

In Art&Seek’s July 1 review of the current Impressionists show at the Kimbell Art Museum, I noted the fact that the Kimbell’s arrangement with the Art Institute of Chicago, the paintings’ home, had raised a few eyebrows in the art world. It involved paying the AIC a reported $2 million, a fee big enough to […]

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In Art&Seek’s July 1 review of the current Impressionists show at the Kimbell Art Museum, I noted the fact that the Kimbell’s arrangement with the Art Institute of Chicago, the paintings’ home, had raised a few eyebrows in the art world. It involved paying the AIC a reported $2 million, a fee big enough to look as though the AIC were renting the paintings out to raise some cash, a practice frowned upon by some. (The $2 million figure has not been confirmed.)

Sunday’s Fort Worth Star Telegram ran a feature about the issue:

“I have zero problem with this practice,” says Richard Brettell, professor of art and aesthetics at the University of Texas at Dallas and former director of the Dallas Museum of Art. “We live in a capitalistic society and museums need to make money in many ways, and this is just one of them.”

It has long been standard practice for museums to charge large fees to send their treasures to other museums. In fact, the Kimbell helped set a precedent when it paid an estimated $3 million for the privilege of exhibiting the prestigious Barnes Collection show in 1994.

In citing Dr. Brettell’s credentials, reporter Andrew Marton mentions the DMA but not the more relevant facts that Dr. Brettell was previously the Searle Curator of European Painting at the Art Institute of Chicago and curated an earlier Impressionist show at the Kimbell, Gauguin and Impressionism.

Of course, neither credential invalidates Dr. Brettell’s point about the need for art museums to raise money. But his involvement with the players would seem to be of interest. The article then cites several examples of the practice from Houston and Philadelphia and concludes, more or less, that it’s all worth it, if it means getting something like the Barnes collection or the 92 works of Impressionists currently at the Kimbell.

One can certainly agree, but what the article doesn’t address are the larger ramifications, some of which Anna Somers Cocks raises in The Art Newspaper article linked above. If exhibitions are going to be awarded, in effect, to the highest bidder, then what about worthy but less-richly endowed institutions? How do they get to display such works — and, in the process, raise some money? Essentially, the implication of “the renting works is OK” argument is that rich museums get to raise more money. Everyone else is out of luck. That doesn’t exactly fit the purpose of the non-profit world, it would seem.

Also, although the Star Telegram article implies that the practice is widespread, Ms. Cocks notes in her January 2008 articles that “the Italian branch of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has just produced a paper denouncing the practice of charging money to lend a work. … [This is] the renting out of works to pot-boiler exhibitions to bump up the lending institution’s finances, and worse—refusing to lend a work, even to a good show or deserving museum, unless a fee is paid.”

The Italians should know, she writes. They helped pioneer the practice — with commercial firms persuading local governments and their underfinanced museums to help underwrite shows that the companies then package and market. Ms. Cocks concludes that “the 1986 ethical code of ICOM states that museum collections are for the benefit of the public and should never be considered financial assets. … After all, why should [museums] be deserving of tax-free status, of donations from business and the rich, of being considered superior to ordinary commercial life, if they themselves become so commercial as to rent out their collections?”

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