Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Note on End Game

I went to the MFAH "loading dock" sale yesterday. This is a clearance sale that is open to members of stuff from the bookstore. I bought a few ultra-inexpensive books, including End Game.
This is the catalog for a show at MFAH from 2008. It was a show of YBAs (young British artists) from the "Chaney Family Collection." I recall seeing it at the time and not being super-impressed. I loved "A Little Death" by Sam Taylor-Wood (which I had already seen at CAMH) and I always like Rachel Whiteread. But the rest didn't hit me very hard.

Sam Taylor-Wood, A Little Death, video, 2002

So why am I writing about the catalog today? What I didn't think about when I saw the show in the museum was its provenance. This is from the collection of the Chaney family, who are the late Robert Chaney, his wife Jereann and their daughter Holland. Chaney had run a small oil E&P, and after it was bought, formed a venture capital firm, R. Chaney & Partners.

Museums obviously have relations with collectors, and always have. For contemporary art, this relationship is very important for a couple of reasons. First, museums may be reluctant to buy contemporary art because history has not rendered judgment. They may end up with a bunch of junk that had only transitory esteem. But if they work with collectors, they can allow the collector to take the risk. The other reason is that presently, contemporary art is outrageously expensive. Museums must work with wealthy collectors if they hope to acquire any of these works.

But these relationships are controversial, especially now. Here is what Tyler Green wrote in The Art Newspaper.
These shows are unethical, improper and raise questions about the museums’ adherence to guidelines the US government lays down for non-profit institutions. (It is important to note that I’m criticising only exhibitions of private collections, not exhibitions of works donated to museums by collectors.) I’m especially disappointed that the New Museum has planned such a poorly considered show and series. It has a unique history as a feminist-created, experiment-driven, alternative space. Its decision to exhibit private collections turns the museum from a kunsthalle into a vanity space.
There are two main problems with these exhibitions. First, and most importantly, they diminish the role of curators as independent scholars, historians and discerning, informed selectors in favour of the consumerist whims of the richest guy in the room.
Through scholarship and curatorial consideration, museums and their curators determine what work has value to a society, a value that is beyond the mere monetary. These kinds of shows do nothing but exhibit and pseudo-validate the spending habits and taste of influential collectors, indicating that someone’s access to an American Express Platinum Card is as meaningful as a curatorial staff’s expertise. Unfortunately, these exhibitions inadvertently reinforce the notion that art is trophy owned by the privileged few, rather than a means through which intellectuals engage communities and nations in a broader discourse.
I am not suggesting that wealthy individuals should not share their collections with the public. In many places, most notably in Miami, collectors have shown their art in spaces controlled by themselves or their family-controlled-and-funded foundations. This is an honourable thing. That is how private collectors should, if they choose, share their art with the public. If a museum director is asked to exhibit a private collection, that director should remind the collector that a museum is more than a trophy house, that the director has too much respect for the museum’s curators to tell them that they are superfluous, and they should point them toward the Miami model. (Tyler Green, The Art Newspaper, November 11, 2009)
This was in response to an exhibit at the New Museum from the collection of Dakis Joannou, a trustee of the museum. Part of the controversy has to do with the extreme cost of the work. The collectors sometimes buy and sometimes sell. I'm sure Robert Chaney, in his business, was all about getting a maximum return on his investments. Why should his art collection have been any different? I'm not suggesting that the Chaney Family Collection is an investment, but if they were to sell any of the pieces for whatever reason, they would want to sell them for a good price, especially considering what they paid for them. Ditto with Joannou and so many other collectors of blue-chip contemporary art. When you buy a piece, you may be thinking that you love it and will live with it forever--but things change. In the future, you might fall out of love with the piece, or need to raise money, or may have too much art in your collection--and decide to sell.

Given this, what's the best way to guarantee that one's collection retains its value? A museum show might be the ticket--it legitimizes art. And, as Don Thompson wrote, it "brands" the art.

It would be difficult to prove this is the case, but one can't help but wonder. In any case, I am not ascribing bad intentions to the Chaneys--but I am indeed suggesting that whatever other motivations they may have had, the collection-legitimizing aspect of a major museum show may have been in the back of their minds.

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