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.