Free Meals

The Wyeths: Three Generations, the previous exhibition at Montclair Art Museum came from Bank of America collection
The Wyeths: Three Generations, the previous exhibition at Montclair Art Museum came from Bank of America collection

If American art institutes are gradually becoming corporate, then large corporations are in fact becoming museums! Today’ a NYT article “And Now, an Exhibition From Our Sponsor” by Robin Pogrebin exposed the unique phenomenon that large banking companies are sponsoring exhibitions to museums from their own collection and pocket. Not only smaller museums such as Bronx Museum of the Arts, but also large institutes such as Philadelphia Museum of Art are receiving ready-to-show exhibitions from corporations at minimum cost.

The museum, by virtue of its stature and its public role, gives legitimacy or confers a certain kind of validity to these collections when it exhibits them.” John Ravenal, president of the Association of Art Museum Curators said in the article. Although I agree with it, what if the collection is of the highest standard for those star artists of the 19th century artists or early 20th century? In deciding whether or not to accept the ready-to-make-show offers from coorporations, art institutes should weigh the gain and loss carefully. Perhaps curators should have the say, since unlike managerial staff they are less likely to lose their intellectural independence in front of the free meals.

I disagree with the comments made by Peter C. Marzio, director of the Houston museum when he defended that  “you almost can’t do a contemporary art show without borrowing from some gallery, and those paintings are for sale. So it’s the ultimate in commercialism…” It is true that not many museums can mount a monograph show without borrowing from private hands or other public institutes and in the case of contemporary art, gallery representatives or auction houses may share the responsibility. Yet by taking the leading role, museums put their identity on the show and voice  their own curatorial perspectives. Taking a whole pre-made show from one single lender is like serving TV dinners from a top chef. The meals can still be tasty, but you won’t call it meals from the iron chefs.

No matter what spokespersons from the banking companies say of their motivations,  the art collection that they have amassed are part of their assets which can be sold for financial, tactical or strategic purposes. Art collections are part of their long-term financial investment, which in the short-term serves publicity purposes. Just like lending money for interest, each time they lend museums for exhibitions, they are building up the legacy of the collection for monetary gain in the future. This must be admitted by those museums who are inclined to accept the offers. No, such practices are not “wrong” as long as it is carefully examined and are not repeated all the time. Especially in this difficult time a new show brings more visitors into museums’ galleries which may otherwise be closed for budget concern. However, free meals only become problematic if one gets addicted. In the case of a person, he or she is just a panhandler without a pan. For a museum, it degenerates into a commercial art gallery disguised behind marble walls.

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