Thursday, 23 April 2015

Bad Acquisition in Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago has acquired a collection of contemporary art that they describe as the 'largest' in their history (it's been misreported as 'greatest'). It includes artists I like (Jasper Johns and Gerhard Richter) and artists I don't (Warhol, Koons, Hirst). But some people like that sort of thing, and there's no question that the art is a worthy addition to the Institute's collection. It's a bad acquisition not because of the pictures, but because they paid too high a price, agreeing to display the collection together for fifty years. That is not really a gift. It's an expensive acquisition that hands over a public space and subverts it to the whim of vain plutocrats.

Donors Stefan T. Edlis and Gael Neeson are buying themselves a memorial, over-riding judgments of more expert curators and over-riding the changing views of posterity to insist that their taste is imposed for half a century, that their pictures are shown whilst other, perhaps better pictures are consigned to storage. If the importance of the collection were beyond doubt then the condition would be unnecessary. The collection's focus on the most currently fashionable artists makes it especially vulnerable to changing taste, and I suspect that future curators and visitors will bitterly regret this acquisition.

The press release disingenuously claims that the museum itself proposed the condition. That trivial piece of spin disgusts me far more than the condition itself. The museum has not only given them gallery space, it implies that the plutocrats' generosity is untainted by conditionality. They get to eat their cake and have it; they take over part of the museum for half a century, and pretend that it was some one else's idea. They get a grand boastful memorial that imposes a cost on the public, and they get to be presented as modest and public-spirited. The museum prostitutes itself twice over, first in handing over the galleries, and second in surrendering its dignity. 

Museums should have the courage to turn down costly bequests like this, which do themselves and their patrons no favours. The Institute is already stuffed to the rafters with treasures. Unless they're adding another wing (or maybe subdivide the big atrium they built for parties), showing these pictures means not showing better pictures. Just say no, kids.


  1. It's getting to be a dim memory, but it seems that a similar situation occurred decades ago when the Cleveland Museum of Art was offered the Morse collection of Dali paintings (now in St. Petersburg, Florida), with a similar proviso. Cleveland and other large museums likely wanted to cherry-pick the collection and sell the remainder, so no deal was struck.

    I can see both sides of this issue--museums should not have curatorial policies dictated to them, and may not want to be overwhelmed by one large specialty, yet I can see the value of keeping collections together. Interest can lessen in certain pieces, or it can increase; either way it can be fascinating (and a good object lesson) to preserve the taste and insight that went into an important collection.

  2. A well stated point of view, and readable--not an easy accomplishment.

    The issue reminds me of the Dia Foundation and it's permanent installations...I love their Dia Beacon facility with its permanent displays and large collections of major league 60's/70's Minimalists and all; but how relevant is Walter De Maria's "The Broken Kilometer" these days?

  3. Richter but not Hirst? I politely disagree with you on that sentiment.

    However I do agree that the "donation" with onerous attachments, exclusions, and rules hand cuff the curator. I can see a point - poorly curated works can result in haphazard "collections" that look more like a grade school compare-and-contrast exercise, but that reflects badly on the curator - not the artists on display.

    I would prefer that the free market apply here - do the exchange, and let the museum own the objects, or don't - do not weasel the deal with endless rules that will restrict display and enjoyment. However the works were donated, not sold, so not much can be done other than accuse the museum staff of poor judgment. They can always return the collection.

    50 year limitations, restrictions, and exclusions. Ridiculous.