The wall separating nonprofit art museums from business activities is crumbling in the US

Relentless commercialisation is compromising the independence of America's nonprofit artinstitutions

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 August, 2015, 10:58pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 August, 2015, 10:58pm


In January, the website, a San Francisco lifestyle company that organises and sells so-called curated experiences, began to offer exclusive, one-on-one private tours of a socially connected photography collector's Georgian mansion in the Pacific Heights neighbourhood.

About a third of the collection's roughly 300 photographs had been featured as a 2012 exhibition at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. The company sales pitch touts the museum's approval. The price of a 90-minute private tour: US$3,500 and up.

A Wall Street Journal tech writer was frank in describing the company's general marketing plan: "You get to do some shoulder-rubbing with the jet setter of your choice if you cough up the dough." Art museum pedigree adds lustre.

So does another, far more troubling fact: the businessman-collector is also a de Young trustee.

The link between the art museum and IfOnly is emblematic of a disturbing transformation, which has been unfolding over a generation: museums are being relentlessly commercialised.

For-profit art dealers are organising shows for nonprofit museums. Museum professionals are organising shows for commercial art fairs and galleries. Museum collections are being monetised, rented out for profit to other museums and private corporations. Corporations are co-organising museum shows.

Nonprofit status subsidises museums through the public tax code. The status was invented more than a century ago to foster diversity of independent thought, free from the narrow economic demands of business or the ideological commands of government. Today, that independence is being corrupted as the wall separating art museums from business activities is crumbling.

Museums are integral to cultural infrastructure – highways to human happiness and bridges to communal knowledge

In fact, so commonplace is the boundary-blurring that few any longer notice. A new normal is in the making, most notably in the US (although it also happens elsewhere).

Take the IfOnly "curated experience". The art, together with the town house, belongs to Trevor Traina, the internet start-up entrepreneur behind the site. Not only is Traina on the de Young Museum's board, his mother, socialite and philanthropist Dede Wilsey, is its powerful longtime president. She held the position when her son's art collection was put on the exhibition schedule.

Two curators assembled the show, including publication of a book. One is on the museum's staff, the other is the private art adviser hired by Traina to help him buy his collection.

Conflicts of interest, real or perceived, were inescapable for everyone involved. Kenneth Baker, the recently retired San Francisco Chronicle art critic who panned the exhibition - he called its conceptual framework "slack" - further lamented the presentation as "an unseemly exercise" that "raised ethical questions rather than critical ones".

As if Baker's complaint mattered: the trustee's subsequent private-access sales pitch adds a fresh layer of commercial exploitation.

Museum commercialisation is rampant in the new millennium. And there are other recent examples from across America.

The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery turned over curatorial duties to two local dealers for a pair of spring shows of artists represented by their galleries, Copro and Thinkspace. A civic exhibition space became a 10,000 sq ft retail outlet. In June a Hirshhorn Museum curator organised an exhibition for Art Basel, the world's leading commercial art fair. A second Hirshhorn curator is serving on the advisory committee of Moving Image Istanbul, a new art fair in Turkey.

A current exhibition at Atlanta's High Museum of Art celebrates "The Coca-Cola Bottle: An American Icon at 100". The museum organised the show in collaboration with the Coca-Cola Co. The board of trustees' vice-chairman for exhibitions is the son of influential Coke executive Donald R. Keough, a life trustee until his death in February.

New York's Guggenheim Museum is renting out 10 paintings from its collection, including masterpieces by Picasso, Kandinsky and Cezanne, to the El Paso Museum of Art. According to the contract, the city-owned Texas museum is picking up local transportation, insurance and installation costs and paying a rental fee of US$200,000 - far in excess of routine Guggenheim administrative expenses. The Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, have engaged in similar rentals, although ethics guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors forbid using a museum's permanent collection for financial gain.

A recent exhibition at Culver City's Mark Moore Gallery was organised by Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. Davies co-organised artist Vernon Fisher's 1989 mid-career survey at his museum. The commercial venture contravenes established ethics guidelines of the professional associations of both museum directors and curators.

These examples, all current or recent, range from minor to momentous. Yet the litany is revealing. Not so long ago, the existence of just one would have raised eyebrows, if not a ruckus, but their proliferation barely registers today. Commercial intrusions are widely regarded with shoulder-shrugging nonchalance.

The question is: why?

Partly it's because public funding in the US has shrunk. By contrast, the sheer volume of private money now sloshing around the art world is unprecedented. Artists, galleries and museums all depend on the same wealthy patrons, who also dominate museum boards of trustees.

Art is a proven asset class, like bonds or real estate, and private assets require protection. The demand is met in part by the professional seal of approval afforded by museums, which implies lasting quality. Inside the institution, an urge to lower the bar in courting philanthropy grows powerful. When commercial pressure comes from outside, an institutional duty to say no requires exceptional fortitude, unusual cleverness or both.

The art world is also newly transnational. The United States' large and established nonprofit museum sector stands in marked contrast to the more common state and private museum models with which it now engages. Globally the sector is distinctive, if not unique, on the world stage - but pressure for conformity builds.

Responsibility does not lie with those participating on the commercial end of things. Artists make art to be seen, while dealers and consultants facilitate art's distribution. All can be knowledgeable, and none can force their way in. They'd be foolish not to grab the opportunity.

Instead, museums are flinging open their doors to commerce. Commitment to keeping trade at arm's length has eroded.

What can be done about the spreading commercialisation of art museums? As long as commerce is confused with a vibrant civil life, probably not much. Museums are integral to cultural infrastructure - highways to human happiness and bridges to communal knowledge.

For the foreseeable future, it seems, we are pretty much stuck with "if only".

Los Angeles Times