Art Critics: Get Real!

Last week, the New Museum opened its new show, “Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection,” curated by mega-art-star Jeff Koons. This show has prompted a huge amount of controversy and suspicion, from The New York Times to The Village Voice, and all the blogs in between.

Some journalists feel safe sounding prudish, cautious and wary of shows that are fraught with art market implications. Like it or not, there is no arguing the fact that some of the best contemporary collections have always been in private hands, and in my view, it’s high time the public gets to see them.

It is interesting to look at all the bad press and the barrage of criticism the New Museum has received and to use these views to expose some of the prejudices, mistaken assumptions and hypocrisy prevalent in much of the art world today. What follows is a short summary of all the alleged problems with the show and a rebuttal that should put most of them to rest.

The unethical and improper nature of a public museum showing a private collection.

This is the naïve claim of someone who still believes in Santa Claus and doesn’t yet understand why parents need to go to FAO Schwarz before the holidays. Most museums in this country are sponsored by private donations, and most shows include some component of private giving. Curators who need funding for a show will naturally go to the lenders, and they are expected to contribute to the expenses. After all, their paintings are hanging on the wall and getting prime exposure; shouldn’t they help foot the bill?

In the Contemporary Art world, this situation is both magnified and multiplied. We have witnessed an art market that has radically changed and accelerated in the past 10 years. Most museums do not allocate a sufficient budget, nor are their curatorial committees equipped to keep up with new artists and new prices. Curators and acquisition committees tend to act slowly and with prudence. This means that they are by nature bureaucratic: They choose late and pay slow. Neither of these attributes endears them to dealers who need to get paid and install the next show, or to artists who want money and need to move on in their career. That’s why much of the best contemporary art ends up in private hands. A great collection requires an entrepreneurial mind-set, a risk-taker with vision and enough money to act quickly and seize opportunities.

Additional thunder has been drained from the museums, with the galleries increasingly doing many of the best shows in town. Shows of Picasso and Piero Manzoni (Acquavella, Gagosian), as well as those of Koons, Alighiero e Boetti and Cindy Sherman (L+M, Gladstone, Skarstedt), have put gallery shows in direct competition with museums. Gallerists know the material and can act quickly; they are committed and don’t need to pander to broad and politically correct guidelines. Recently, one of these very dealers became the director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (none other than Jeffrey Deitch, Dakis’ adviser), thus further blurring the hard lines between dealers and curators, galleries and museums. After all, museums are galleries, too, in a way. They don’t sell their paintings, but they do sell tickets and books, and they are competing for our eyes and our dollars.

The collector will gain economically from the show.

There is no doubt that museum provenance is a nice calling card for any work of art. The first thing that any serious collector wants to know when they hear of an upcoming show is whether their own works will be included. But why do critics get offended if a painting in the show gains value, and why does no one ever talk about the museum shows that diminish art values? Many mid-career retrospectives end up giving an artist’s market a big hangover-collectors feel they’ve seen and done it, and the best work is over, so the work declines. Also, let’s not forget that there are many shows where the work can look bad or plain indifferent. As far as which ones are now worth more and which are worth less, Richard Armstrong of the Guggenheim recently said, “… [I]f the works become more valuable in the process, that doesn’t hurt anyone.”

Art Critics: Get Real!