The Mapplethorpe Deal

Thoughts on LACMA and the Getty’s joint acquisition of 3200 Robert Mapplethorpe photos and the artist’s archive:

• Mapplethorpe made his name with pictures of naked black guys and S&M. You’d have a hard time learning that from the press accounts and museum blogs of the LACMA-Getty acquisition. I mean, if this was about O. Winston Link, they’d mention railroads, right? Left is Italian Devil (1988)—to remind you what a little devil Mapplethorpe was, in the American conversation—and below is Thomas (1987), a blend of the porn, surrealism, and gay acting-up on which Mapplethorpe’s reputation will rise or fall. The offended may want to consult Glenn Beck, or preferably Glenn Ligon.

• Aside from the news itself, the biggest surprise is that David Geffen bankrolled LACMA’s end of the deal. Geffen is the city’s most discerning big-time collector of contemporary art. Though his name is on a MOCA building, he doesn’t get 1 percent of the buzz that Eli Broad or the Resnicks do (not that a collector should crave attention—good grief!) The inevitable question: Is Geffen taking renewed interest in the city’s museums?

• Despite L.A.’s stature in photography, it has few archives of major artists. Tucson has Edward Weston, Garry Winogrand, Harry Callahan, and Ansel Adams. Until now, there was nothing of that stature in L.A.

• Why Los Angeles? Floral Park, NY-born Mapplethorpe had no particular connection to the West Coast. Yes, his partner-sponsor Sam Wagstaff’s collection became the cornerstone of the Getty photography department. The genius of the deal seems to be Michael Govan. According to the press release, Mapplethorpe Foundation president Michael Ward Stout is friends with Govan and mentioned that they were scouting institutions to host the archive. “Why not us?” Govan asked.

• Deja vu: Govan was also involved in persuading the Mapplethorpe Foundation to make a big gift to the Guggenheim Museum in 1992. The Guggenheim website reports that that gift made it “the most comprehensive public repository of this important American artist’s work.” The Guggenheim deal included a financial grant from the foundation to the museum (whereas L.A.’s museums have to pay…) The Guggenheim gift was an edited set of 200 photos; the LACMA-Getty deal will include about 3200 photos and 120,000 negatives, as well as papers/videos/ephemera.

• Since LACMA’s whole photography department had about 6000 prints, the Mapplethorpes increase that number substantially. Mapplethorpe becomes the best-represented major artist in the Getty collection, topping August Sanders and Walker Evans (about 1300 prints each).

• The news will renew debate on the merits of museums sharing collections. I’m not sure this has much to say about that in the meta-abstract. LACMA and the Getty prudently joined forces to court the Mapplethorpe Foundation. The Getty has expertise and state-of-the-art facilities for preserving photographs, personal papers, and videos. There are those who think that shared ownership of unique objects (like Chris Burden’s Hells Gate, jointly owned by LACMA and MOCA) is the wave of the future. The question to ask may be: How likely is it that both institutions will want to show the same object at once? Photographs can’t be shown permanently, and nobody will be showing many Mapplethorpe photos at once, except in an occasional retrospective. This case is a win-win proposition, for reasons that may not apply to other sharings.