Source: The New York Times (www.nytimes.com), by Jory Finkel
TAKASHI MURAKAMI’S “Oval Buddha,” a shiny new 19-foot-tall platinum and aluminum sculpture that looms large over his current retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art here, was originally supposed to be sent from Japan by boat. But come August, after several years and millions of dollars in the making, the Buddha still needed some work.
So Mr. Murakami’s gallery, Blum & Poe, came to the rescue. It chartered a plane from Japan Airlines to buy more time and carry the giant Buddha to California.
That’s not all Blum & Poe has done to help the museum. The gallery, which has exhibited Mr. Murakami’s work in Los Angeles for about a decade, helped Paul Schimmel, the museum’s chief curator, secure some loans from major collectors. It bought $50,000 worth of tickets for the opening-night gala, with proceeds benefiting the museum.
And, in a move that many in the field are questioning, the gallery kicked in what the dealer Tim Blum described as a “six-figure” contribution to finance the museum show itself.
“It’s a vote of confidence for MOCA, for Paul, for Takashi and for the whole project,” Mr. Blum said.
Mr. Schimmel said that the sum, which he declined to specify, was matched by the Gagosian Gallery, which represents Mr. Murakami in New York, and Emmanuel Perrotin, which represents him in Paris. Mr. Schimmel thanks these “three strong gallery partners” in his Murakami catalog for “lending significant administrative and financial support to the exhibition and to MOCA’s extensive marketing campaign.”
Yet for many in the art world such gifts raise an issue: Should nonprofit art museums accept money from commercial galleries with a clear financial stake in the artist’s career, and in some cases in the artworks on display?
More generally, can the willingness of galleries to pony up subtly influence what a museum sets out to exhibit?
The Los Angeles show is not the only one raising these questions. Across from the museum the alternative arts center Redcat credits the New York gallery Deitch Projects as one of four sponsors of its graffiti-packed, street-smart installation by the San Francisco artist Barry McGee. The dealer Jeffrey Deitch and Redcat said the gallery contributed $15,000. And for the current Richard Prince retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, Larry Gagosian and Barbara Gladstone, Mr. Prince’s Los Angeles and New York dealers, both wrote checks, the museum confirmed. Neither the dealers nor the museum disclosed the amounts.
Galleries have periodically, if quietly, financed exhibitions before; Sperone Westwater, for example, pitched in with the 2005 Richard Tuttle exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. But it’s hard to remember another season when so many dealers were writing checks to museums for solo shows devoted to their artists, and being credited publicly for it.
Museum curators emphasize that this is not a case of dealers’ insinuating themselves into a prestigious museum context. They say the museums approached the dealers, not the other way around.
“I don’t want you to think the money comes rolling in because dealers are knocking on my door,” said Mr. Schimmel of the Museum of Contemporary Art. “I go to them and say we need their help to realize the exhibition. I even had the nerve to ask Marianne Boesky to help, and she no longer represents the artist.” (Ms. Boesky gave an undisclosed amount for the show, as did several private collectors.)
Lisa Dennison, who was the director of the Guggenheim when the Richard Prince show was being organized and now works at Sotheby’s, said that declining corporate donations had prompted museums to be more resourceful in recent years.
“They look to a variety of sources: corporations, individuals, galleries and auction houses,” she said. “They look to them all and leave no stone unturned.”
But not everybody in the museum world is comfortable with the trend. Bruce Altshuler, director of the museum studies program at New York University, compared it to accepting money from a corporation to display its merchandise.
“Gallery sponsorship like this raises the same kind of ethical conflict-of-interest questions as the Armani show,” said Mr. Altshuler, citing a 2000 show at the Guggenheim on the fashion designer Giorgio Armani. (Participants in Guggenheim meetings said in 1999 that the show was organized after Armani pledged $15 million to the museum.)
“There are two basic questions,” Mr. Altshuler said. “Was the decision to mount the exhibition made because of funding from someone with an economic interest in the show? And did that funding lead to the ceding of curatorial decision making or some influence on the choice of works in the exhibition?” He added that even if a show’s curator can confidently reply no to both questions, some damage might be done nonetheless. “There might not be any actual impropriety, but the goal is to avoid even the appearance of it,” he said.
For that reason, Mr. Altshuler said, he found the Los Angeles museum’s fund-raising from galleries more problematic than its controversial decision to play host to a Louis Vuitton boutique that sells Murakami-designed merchandise inside the exhibition space. “I personally see no problem with the Louis Vuitton store,” he said. “That seems perfectly in the spirit of Murakami’s work.”
Several museum officials echoed Mr. Altshuler’s concerns about cash contributions from galleries. “It’s a slightly alarming situation to see more and more galleries on museum credit lines,” said Brett Littman, director of the Drawing Center in New York. “I think we need a stronger separation of church and state.”
“At the end of the day galleries are about selling the work, not about stewardship,” he said. “Even if they do ‘museum-quality’ shows, their real job is to move that work as merchandise.”
Mr. Littman added that he might consider asking a gallery to frame or ship an artwork for a Drawing Center show, but “I wouldn’t ask them to finance the exhibition directly.”
Gary Garrels, chief curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, called gallery financing “an act of last resort,” adding that the Hammer had not accepted such contributions. “You don’t want to have even the appearance that the museum program is for sale to whoever can write the check,” he said. “That’s the bottom line. The museum is supposedly trying to make decisions with some kind of objectivity. These are the goals or ideals, anyway.”
But, Mr. Garrels quickly added, ideals are hardly a match for the reality of the frenzied art market today. “The market seems like it’s on the edge of taking over every corner of the art world,” he said. “This is just another example of it. That’s what makes people very nervous. You feel like you’re sliding down a very slippery slope.”
Where to draw the line on gallery support varies widely from museum to museum. Those with contemporary art programs naturally consult galleries for research purposes, whether seeking access to their archives or client lists. When contacted for this article, many museums said they also accept nonmonetary, or in-kind, support, from the framing of artwork to the organizing of a reception.
Some institutions, like the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, said they regularly accept financial donations from galleries for the production of accompanying catalogs but would not permit galleries to “directly underwrite exhibitions.” (The Walker is one of the few museums with written guidelines on this issue.)
Officials at other institutions, like the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, said they consider catalogs intrinsic to an exhibition and thus have not accepted gallery funds for either — at least as far as they can recall.
“We’ve racked our brains and examined our records,” said Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the Met. “And there are no examples we can find where a gallery sponsored an exhibition.”
(Some have pointed out that the Met does, however, accepting financing from fashion houses that are featured in exhibitions at its Costume Institute. And that “Para,” a publication accompanying its recent Neo Rauch show, was not prepared by the museum but by the artist’s gallery, Eigen & Art.)
As for the Richard Tuttle show, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s director of development, J. Mullineaux, described the decision to solicit money from Sperone Westwater as an exception resulting from cost overruns. “I don’t see it becoming standard practice in the future,” he noted in an e-mail.
The Association of American Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors do not have specific guidelines about accepting gallery sponsorship. Rather, they have published general guidelines on corporate support, like a museum association statement issued in 2001 after controversy over shows like the Guggenheim’s Armani.
“A museum’s governing authority and staff must ensure that no individual or business benefits at the expense of the museum’s mission, reputation, or the community it serves,” one section says.
The worst case, most interviewed agreed, would be for a museum to accept money from a gallery to stage a show of new or available work that the gallery could essentially sell straight off the museum walls. That does not appear to be the case with the Guggenheim’s Richard Prince retrospective, whose single biggest source of works was the artist’s own collection, followed closely by works in private hands. And only a handful of the 90-plus works in the Murakami exhibition are for sale, most prominently the “Oval Buddha” sculpture, offered by Blum & Poe.
As for the much smaller exhibition supported by Deitch Projects at Redcat, Mr. Deitch said that Mr. McGee is one of his least commercial artists and that he had not yet figured out which elements of the installation he might sell.
Some museums will enter profit-sharing partnerships with dealers when commissioning a new work. (That was the kind of agreement that Mass MoCA in North Adams, Mass., was trying to negotiate with the New York dealer Michele Maccarone when its plans for a vast installation by Christoph Büchel fell apart.)
Redcat says that as a matter of policy it will not take a cut if Mr. Deitch sells any pieces from the McGee installation. Nor will the Los Angeles museum derive a profit from a future sale of Mr. Murakami’s Buddha, Mr. Schimmel said. “We have not been actively co-owning or participating in the fabrication of new pieces because of the financial relationships it creates,” he said. He added that neither Blum & Poe, Gagosian nor Emmanuel Perrotin had exerted influence over the content of the Murakami show.
“Never once did a gallery say, ‘You should have this work of art in the show’ or ‘Take care of this collector,’” he said. At other museums, he added, “I’ll be curious if other curators can say that unequivocally.” He approached the three galleries for support in February, after he had completed the Murakami checklist and floor plan, he added.
Jeremy Strick, the director of the Los Angeles museum, said that while he had accepted gallery financing for shows before, curatorial independence remained paramount. “MOCA would never accept interference from anyone in development of its curatorial program,” he said.
Similarly, Eleanor Goldhar, a spokeswoman for the Guggenheim, said: “We do not have a policy that precludes receiving support from any particular category of donors. However we do have a policy that our curatorial decisions will not be influenced by our sponsors.”
Ms. Dennison said the Guggenheim solicited money for the Prince exhibition from the dealers last spring, over two years after deciding to organize the show. (The show’s curator, Nancy Spector, declined to be interviewed about sponsorship, and the Guggenheim Foundation said that its director, Thomas Krens, was unavailable for comment.)
Still, critics say that questions of perceived influence and apparent benefit persist, as does the issue of why museums as large as MOCA and the Guggenheim need to turn to galleries for money at all.
Mr. Deitch of Deitch Projects chalks it up partly to a crisis in arts philanthropy at a time when artists’ productions are growing ever bigger. He said he receives weekly requests from nonprofit institutions of all sizes for support. “My staff is astonished by how much comes in by mail, e-mail, phone,” he said.
He agreed in June to support the Redcat show, which he sees as a way of helping his artist realize his vision, he said. “I’m not doing this so that I can cash in on Barry McGee,” he added. “I’m doing this because if I don’t, there is no show.”
Ms. Gladstone, who helped finance the Richard Prince exhibition, touched on the same theme. “I don’t see any corporate support, or very little of the kind that, say, Philip Morris used to provide. And what happened to the National Endowment for the Arts, which used to do a lot of funding?
“I think galleries are reluctantly stepping in to fill the gap.”