Art News Roundup: Institutional Insanity Edition

For this week’s Art News Roundup, it’s time to settle in for a good wallow into some rather juicy new scandals from museum world, all of which seem to have hit the fan at about the same time.

If you don’t have time to look into all of these stories, I want to at least encourage you to read this absolutely jaw-dropping report by L.A. Times Art Critic Christopher Knight, in which he details how the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Ahmanson Foundation, the museum’s single largest funder for decades, are parting ways over LACMA’s decision to turn itself into what can only be described as a storage unit with a peephole. I won’t go into all the details in Mr. Knight’s article, but trust me, gentle reader, when I tell you that it’s got everything you could wish for in a piece about today’s increasingly messy museum world: enormous amounts of dosh, priceless works of art, outsized egos, terrible architecture, and just a hint of “wokeness”. The (no doubt unintentional) schadenfreude served up here is so good, it’s worth savoring.

4x5 original

A few months ago, I predicted on the Federalist Radio Hour that in future, an increasing number of serious collectors may be returning to a somewhat old-fashioned notion, exemplified by institutions such as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston: the creation of their own, private museums. Rather than entrusting their art to large institutions, or buying art on their behalf, some philanthropist-collectors may well decide to just start their own non-profit foundations to house and display their treasures. In many instances, the situation at present appears to be one in which donors and board members are coming to be viewed as a liability, or even an enemy, by at least some members of institutional staff. At the same time, if a donor has no say over what happens to their objects or funds once donated, the incentive to give may be tempered by an unwillingness to participate in someone else’s agenda, as appears to be happening in the LACMA controversy, but in many other institutions, as well.

We’ve already seen how this more deep-rooted conflict is playing out in the more mundane aspects of institutional life. Museum administrators are increasingly afraid of accepting gifts from those who do not meet moral standards imposed by particular pressure groups, with whom they often philosophically agree. If they aren’t careful, institutional staff also run the risk of protesters tossing things like blood or pee or poo all over their front steps. For the donors themselves, who have spent years building collections worth millions of dollars, or providing significant funds to museums to purchase very expensive art objects, it’s not unreasonable for them to want to see all or at least most of the objects in question put on display. If an institution is just going to hoard these objects without showing them – a problem that I’ve written about previously – then there seems to be less incentive for donors to give or pay for these things in the first place.

However the real crisis for many museums, it seems to me, is one of identity, arising from a very different set of beliefs regarding what a museum is supposed to be. Is a museum meant to be a monumental display cabinet, or is it a temple of socio-political advocacy? For the past century or so, these institutions have mostly been the former, but they are increasingly being pulled in the direction of becoming the latter. And while there will no doubt be individual and corporate donors who are willing to climb on the hay wagon for whatever cause a major museum wants to push, there will be others who will be turning to institutions who do not see their role as that of agitator, but rather that of archivist. However the dust settles, we will be living with the outcome of this breakdown in the relationship between donor and institution for some time to come.

And now, on to some other museum news that will hopefully add a bit of zest to your day.

Manhattan Mystery

There’s something of a weird and murky story in New York museum world at the moment, regarding the American Museum of Natural History. According to the art website Hyperallergic, an activist group is claiming that the museum “quietly removed” a major donor from its board of trustees, a move which the group appears to ascribe to the donor’s sin of being what some would refer to as a “climate change denier”. Rebekah Mercer, who along with her family has been involved in numerous conservative political and social causes over the years, had been on the museum’s board since 2013, presumably because of the millions of dollars in donations which the Mercers have provided to the institution. The museum responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment by noting that Ms. Mercer’s term on the board had expired in December, but provided no further details; according to the museum’s own internal policies, Ms. Mercer would have been eligible for re-election to the board, but there’s no indication at present as to whether she stood for reelection or not, and if not, why not. This could all be innocuous, a case of a board member needing to step away from having too much on her plate, or it could be that Ms. Mercer is just the latest major donor to be forced out of museum world because of ties to businesses or causes which run afoul of a certain political mindset. Stay tuned for developments.

American Museum of Natural History, Upper West Side, Manhattan

Barcelona Blunder

Subscribers and regular readers may recall my telling you last year about an agreement to build an outpost of Russia’s behemoth Hermitage Museum in Barcelona, on the city’s reclaimed seafront. The plan included a wave-like structure designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, which would harmonize with the city’s now-iconic, sailboat-like W Hotel next door. To the surprise of many, that deal now seems to have fallen apart, although for some reason it hasn’t been reported in English-language art news outlets until now. In a report commissioned by city officials, investigators concluded that the proposal did not sufficiently address several key issues, including the new museum’s potential impact on the environment or the neighborhood (particularly with regard to vehicular traffic), and did not provide sufficient projections regarding revenue to justify municipal investment. Although some, including the city’s Chamber of Commerce, are still hopeful that local officialdom could be persuaded to change its mind, history tells us that it’s more likely that Madrid will pick up the ball now that Barcelona has dropped it. For those of you who can read Spanish, there’s a great piece by commentator Miquel Molina in Barcelona’s biggest daily, La Vanguardia, on how the city may have had some legitimate concerns, but despite its reputation for innovation in technology and design, Barcelona has a tendency to flub these sorts of projects – in fact, there hasn’t been a new cultural project built in Barcelona on the scale proposed by the Hermitage in about twenty years.


Florence Fiasco

This being the Year of Raphael, when many museums around the world are marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520), one of the greatest artists in history (and my personal favorite), it’s no surprise that Rome is putting on a major exhibition dedicated to his life and work. The Scuderie del Quirinale, where the show will open on March 5th, has simply titled the exhibition, “Raffaello”, because no further explanation regarding its subject is necessary. What may well require some explanation however, is why the Uffizi Gallery in Florence agreed to lend the exhibition its famous “Portrait of Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de Medici and Luigi de Rossi” (c. 1517-18), a detail of which is shown below, against the advice of its own scientific committee, which had warned back in December that the Raphael panel painting was too fragile to travel. In reaction to this decision, the entire scientific committee of the Uffizi resigned en masse yesterday, after learning in the art press on Tuesday – rather than from the leadership of the museum itself – that the painting was already in Rome, against their advice.


One Comment on “Art News Roundup: Institutional Insanity Edition

  1. Pingback: Art News Roundup: Pandemic Projects Edition – William Newton

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