The Late-Capitalist Museum as Pre-Professional Museum

MoCA Los Angeles: the future? (Courtesy tbSMITH/Flickr)

Over in e-flux’s Art & Education journal, Dr. Nizan Shaked, a professor of art history, museum and curatorial studies at the California State University Long Beach, offers a nice, long look at the state of museum administration and the proliferation of private museums today.

Dr. Shaked juxtaposes the operating style of dealer-turned-director Jeffrey Deitch at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles with that of the activities of Marcia Tucker, the founder of the New Museum in the late 1970s. They embody two definitively different modes of operation, and she finds a great deal more to admire in the latter. Here’s her sense of what is happening today:

[W]hat has become increasingly problematic in the atmosphere of deregulation, escalating since the 1970s, is the return to a model Vera Zolberg has characterized as the: “pre-professional era,” where businessmen controlled the function and content of museums. Most recently, blatant undemocratic practices have been openly exercised, becoming practically permissible. It seems that anyone footing enough of the bill can institutionalize their personal taste while exploiting the benefits of tax deduction. For example, rather than choosing to strengthen one of the city’s existing institutions, Broad, [like] other wealthy Americans before him, opted to add another museum that will carry his name, taking control over urban-scale design decisions while receiving rebates from public monies.

The footnotes contain quite a few fine gems. Dr. Shaked highlights, for instance, Christopher Knight’s point that the changes in the tax code for top earners over the past few decades has led to an explosion in the creation of private art institutions. (No doubt it has helped fuel the art market, as well.) The wealthy have money to burn.

She also hammers Mr. Deitch for canceling MoCA’s planned Jack Goldstein retrospective, making the idiosyncratic argument that “it seems like a dire financial mistake for a newly appointed director who might wish to encourage the local art market by canonizing a revered ‘artists’ artist.'”

And she’s breathtakingly optimistic about the possibility of change:

The recent shift to the autocratic museum is potentially unsustainable, as we may very well see a cultural shift that will render their criteria extraneous. With the recent budget crisis and its aftermath, the growing public mistrust of banks and corporations, and the invigoration of the left, it is possible to imagine a cultural shift that will devalue the spectacular and the populist, where much of the overpriced contemporary art will eventually take an unrecoverable dip.

The full article is well worth a read.

The Late-Capitalist Museum as Pre-Professional Museum