Art Philanthropy Is Alive and Well…At Least in Manhattan

There are many games which one associates with the lives of those who are fortunate enough to spend much of their time at leisure. There are no competitors of moderate income taking part in the America’s Cup, for example. Yet an interesting piece which appeared in Vanity Fair yesterday on the game known as art collecting shows that there are some games which only the very, very comfortable are able to play. And that game has an important impact on both the art world and philanthropy.

The article in question theorizes that there is a war going on between the three most important art museums in New York City: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, and The Whitney Museum of American Art.  More precisely, the piece suggests that there are power struggles among the various board members of these institutions, which are affecting the institutions themselves. The effort to preserve what is already there, while attracting more visitors to their collections so that what is sometimes termed “high art” remains relevant to younger generations, is an ongoing dilemma for many of these august bodies.

What seems particularly interesting or unusual is the idea that The Met is evolving to better reflect the ongoing history of art.  This is something which the Lauder family has moved along considerably with the donation of their collection of Cubist works. This among other artistic movements of the previous century was an area of acquisition which The Met had largely left to MoMA in the past, given their very different reasons for existing, If The Met is seeking to get into the Modern Art game now it might seem to have left it a bit late, but then again The Met is The Met.

In London of course there is a clear division of powers between the two largest art institutions of that city: The National Gallery and Tate (I still have difficulty in dropping the leading “The”.) If you are looking for Modern or Contemporary Art, you have to go south of the Thames, rather than to Trafalgar Square, in order to see it. Here in Washington, by contrast, although the Hirshhorn specializes in such things, the National Gallery also has Modern and Contemporary works in its possession. Local dictates seem to lead to inconsistent results when it comes to the honing and polishing of a particular institution’s holdings.

However the importance of recognizing these ongoing changes lies not so much in controversies over building expansions, board membership, or the like, but in the nature of the collections themselves. If a public or quasi-public institution holds fast to the idea that art is intended to educate and edify the public, then the choices which it makes in what to acquire and display tell us a great deal about not only the institution itself, but that institution’s perception of the community which it serves. That is where, sometimes, museums can lose their way, by forgetting their purpose.

Is the art museum becoming merely a place of entertainment, a charge levied by some against one of the institutions profiled in the Vanity Fair article? One could certainly look at the museum of today in that fashion. Perhaps they are viewed as a place where the discarded baubles of the dead are put out for the curious to admire, or a venue for holding swanky parties in luxurious surroundings. The counter to that argument, of course, is that art collections large and small have always been sought out by those who appreciate art, whether in the vast corridors of the former palaces of the Bourbons and Medici, or in grand country houses and estates which open their doors to visitors but still remain private residences for most of the year.

Rather perhaps the question which we ought to be asking when we see the evolution of art museums is one not of utility, but of intent. What is the goal of building up a collection of 20th century masterpieces in Manhattan, if not to keep such works hanging on the walls of a penthouse on the Upper East Side? Is it such a bad thing for someone who has been fortunate enough to succeed in this country, to share his good fortune with a major museum, for the pleasure and enlightenment of his fellow citizens?

When many of this country’s art institutions got their starts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were able to take advantage of the fact that the Old World was getting a bit decrepit and in need of American cash. Whereas most of the European art institutions have their origins in royal collections forcibly or otherwise appropriated from their former owners, in the U.S. it was the well-to-do who realized that they would have to voluntarily build such collections themselves, if there were to be comparable institutions for the benefit of the citizenry. Thus it occurred then, as it does today, that the magnates and financiers who built the original museums have their descendants at present in those who continue to benefit from the opportunities afforded those who are able to make the American dream a reality for themselves and their families, and in the process benefit their communities as well.

Many of the names have changed, as fortunes are won and lost and diluted, but the idea that something needs to be given back remains an essential component of the philanthropic spirit which created the art world as we know it in this country. When Leonard Lauder donated his Cubist collection to The Met, he thanked his children for being willing to give up part of their future inheritance – in the form of works of art estimated to be worth a total of over $1 billion – for the sake of enriching the collections of New York’s most important public educational institution. That says volumes about the state of artistic philanthropy in this country – or at least in Manhattan.

The Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Curious Case of the Caring Curator

A not-infrequent criticism I raise on this blog has to do with museums, and the fact that so many of them seem to have forgotten what they are supposed to be.  So it was a real pleasure this morning to read this interview with Luke Syson, the chairman of the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  While I can’t say I agree with him on every point he raises in the article, I can see that he’s coming from the right starting point, both in how he’s looking at the art under his care, and the purpose of the institution he’s working for. Some highlights:

Should we be looking at contemporary and historic art side by side?

Works from different periods and different places are best shown together in people’s houses, but in museums, I like to keep them separate so that everything doesn’t become some mushy whole. The museum’s task is to present the works of art from the past as a product of their particular time, but also as timeless.

This is a blessed relief to read, particularly from someone in a curatorial position.  Over a decade ago, certain museums and galleries in this country began re-hanging their collections in seemingly arbitrary ways, copying some of the damage done by Sir Nicholas Serota and others in positions of curatorial authority who suffer from exceedingly poor taste.  My personal favorite was the major American (taxpayer-funded) collection which decided to install the works in its permanent collection in groups of “feelings” selected by the curators.  Fortunately this trend seems to be reversing itself of late, as the new director of Tate Britain demonstrated recently.

You are refurbishing the Met’s galleries of British sculpture, furniture and decorative arts. What can we expect?

What we have had on show in the past is a history of aristocratic British patronage, and that is very important, but we also want to look at the entrepreneurial spirit that runs through British art. This is a country without a dominant court in the way that the French had Versailles. Although the monarch was important, he wasn’t the person dictating all trends. Similarly, London’s Royal Academy of Arts comes late in history. Arguably, the establishment of factories by [ceramic manufacturers] Bolton and Wedgwood is as significant as the Royal Academy.

This is a spot-on observation.  There’s a reason why Napoleon famously referred to the British as “a nation of shopkeepers”, with somewhat mercantile tastes.  This is not to say that there are no grand houses in Britain, for there certainly are.  Rather, the level of show and luxury is, when viewed as a whole, not quite as ostentatious as one would have found in France or Italy during the same periods of time.  Moreover, there is a perennial British fascination with collecting large amounts of smaller objects and cramming them all together onto shelves, mantelpieces, and so on, whether you are an earl in a stately home or a pensioner in a terraced house.

You are one of a number of curators who have left British museums for US institutions in recent years. Why has there been such an influx?

Perhaps it sends a message to museums back home that they need to value their curators more.

Shhh….keep this to yourself.  We want them here to lend a bit of style about the place.  Hopefully Mr. Syson’s plans will bear good fruit over the coming years.

Room in the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Galleries The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Room in the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Galleries
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Darkness and Light in the Art Market

For all of its flash and press, I’ve always found the Contemporary Art world to be rather a dark, inscrutable place. The art market is made up of many component strands, of which Contemporary Art is easily the brashest component.  Modern and Impressionist Art is still doing quite well of course, as last night’s sale in London of a Monet from his water lily series for $54 million shows.  It’s hard to imagine that 50 years from now, our grandchildren will look at this Monet alongside a work by someone like contemporary British artist Tracy Emin, and see them as being of equal artistic value.  Yet the art market itself is significantly changing, and this is both a problem and an opportunity.

It’s not hard to understand why, if you’re interested in making a lucrative career for yourself in the art business, that Contemporary Art is increasingly viewed as the place to be.  Between July 2012 and July 2013, worldwide sales of Contemporary Art hit one billion pounds for the first time.  It’s also the place to be if you just so happen to be a speculative investor.

At the top end of the market, Contemporary Art regularly commands very high prices, so that only the extremely rich can afford the buy-in for what in many cases is more about gambling than collecting.  True, some of those paying tens of millions of dollars for something which the average person looks at and scratches his head, rather than admires, may actually find meaning in what they are buying, even where beauty itself is noticeably absent.  However more often than not, such collectors are primarily interested in seeing art as a way to move money around more easily, and those who help them complete these transactions understand and facilitate this.

We need to remember of course that the art market is first and foremost a business environment, not a charitable institution.  If someone chooses to pay an astronomical sum for a work by contemporary sculptor Anish Kapoor, the creator of the broken-rollercoaster-enveloping-the-Seattle-Space-Needle sculpture known as “Orbit” for the 2012 London Olympic Park, the market is more than happy to oblige.  It is not the market’s job to point out that a fool and his money are soon parted.

The tough aspect of this, for those interested in the art world, is in separating speculation from appreciation.  A recent article in The New York Times probes this point, noting the huge chasm which currently exists in the area of Contemporary Art.  As a British art investment expert points out in the piece, the fixation on sales figures helps perpetuate the perception that art collecting is supposed to be about accumulating profit over the pursuit of knowledge and the appreciation of the beautiful. “Rich collectors compete in auctions to prove how much money they have. The rest of us should just have a discussion about the art we like.”

Fortunately, fans of all things old increasingly find themselves members of more intimate clubs.  In the field of Decorative Arts, for example, collectors and aficionados are becoming not only better-educated about the things they love, but they are being drawn more closely together because there are fewer of them.  As more and more media attention is siphoned off by the Contemporary Art trade, serious collectors interested in beautiful things find themselves freer to go about doing what they love.  Recently an article in The Art Newspaper covering the Art Antiques Fair in London hit the nail on the head when it comes to understanding this change, noting that “anything but contemporary art is being squeezed more and more because of the greed-inspiring sums of money fetched by the contemporary,” noting that attending events like the Art Antiques Fair is a pleasure because one is attending “an event that is genuinely to do with collecting rather than interior decorating or investing.”

What’s interesting to observe about this phenomenon is that it is bringing back collecting to where it began, in a sort of wheat from the chaff moment.  Chinese scholars, Roman senators, and Medieval princes were not interested in having unique works of art and art objects to hand because they intended to sell them on at a profit later, like flipping a house in a gentrifying neighborhood and then moving along.  Rather, they collected things to hold on to them forever, because they meant something more than the price tag which the objects bore.  Today, even as those interested in art as profitable investment are now going in one direction, those interested in art as a physical embodiment of intangible goods such as transcendent beauty, human ingenuity, and so on, are returning to their roots.

For the vast majority of us, the first and best rule of both studying and collecting art, has always been to focus on the things you love.  Learn as much about them as you can, so that whether it’s pre-Revolutionary Sèvres porcelain or early 20th century watercolors of the Scottish Highlands, you will not only enjoy them more, but you will benefit from meeting and forming friendships with others who enjoy them as well, educating one another about the finer points of technique, style, history, and so on.  Leave the business of art business to those primarily interested in playing speculative games in the dark, rather than in illuminating our culture.

"Water Lilies" (1906) by Claude Monet  Sold at Sotheby's London for $54 million last evening

“Water Lilies” (1906) by Claude Monet
Sold at Sotheby’s London for $54 million last evening