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An artist in residence (she can afford)

Jun 24, 2019

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Marketplace

Museums and art galleries: Who’s using whom?

May 19, 2016
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"200 One Dollar Bills" by Andy Warhol, valued at $8 million to $12 million, is displayed during a preview of a Sotheby's in 2009 in New York City. 
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

For more on new art in old museums, listen to the latest episode of “Actuality.”

The other day, Lucy Mitchell-Innes received a request that would have been unheard of 10 or 15 years ago. Mitchell-Innes is the principal at Mitchell-Inness & Nash, a gallery of contemporary and modern art in New York City. 

“A letter came across my desk yesterday asking for $10,000,” she said. The letter was from a museum putting on an exhibit of one of the artists Mitchell-Innes & Nash represents, asking her to chip in. It happens all the time. “It can be 50, 60, $70,000, and it can be more,” she said.

Fifteen years ago, if she would offer to cover some small expense a museum incurred in exhibiting one of her artist’s work, “they said ‘Oh, no, no no, we want separation of church and state!’”

That separation is fading. Museums are focusing on contemporary art more than ever before, and the artwork is expensive to buy and install. So they ask for help from the people who stand to gain — artists and galleries. 

“Honestly, museums are both greedy and cash strapped right now, a lot of them,” said Kelly Crow, who covers art for the Wall Street Journal. Museums sometimes ask not just for money but for donations of art. “Otherwise they may not be able to afford it,” said Crow.

For some, this transactional aspect to exhibition is unseemly.

“Boundaries are being blurred,” said Katherine Michaelsen, a professor of art history at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

One concern is that museums, in need of funds, might be influenced in their exhibitions by galleries who supply them. Similarly, museums give the appearance of charging galleries (and the public) to promote a gallery’s artist.

“It’s problematic to have a museum so blatantly involved in promoting an artist whose works are for sale,” said Michaelsen.  

On the other hand, it is unavoidable that museums showing contemporary art are going to be exhibiting artists who are still alive and still selling their sometimes very expensive work. 

And as the number and emphasis of museums exhibiting contemporary and modern art grows, the tension increasingly presents itself. 

“No question it’s fraught with challenges,” said Maxwell Anderson, research affiliate at the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy studies at Princeton University and former director of the Whitney and the Dallas Museum of Art. He said an experienced curator with a reputation to preserve should be able to manage conflicts of interest. He does worry about smaller institutions with less scrutiny or less experienced curators. “The ultimate cure-all in the art world, since the art world is unregulated, is transparency.”

Transparency helps because conflicts of interest, like beauty and art, are often in the eye of the beholder. 

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