Last Thursday Art Institute of Chicago boss James Cuno gave a talk at the Corcoran. Cuno believes that the museum-as-fun-palace trend of recent years is overdone, and that if a museum shows good art and shows it well that its mission is complete. Given that the Corcoran is, sadly, better known for passing off revenue opportunities as exhibitions (J. Seward Johnson, Judith Lieber, I could keep going…) than it is for its good shows (usually photo exhibs, think Robert Frank or Sally Mann), the Corc’s inviting of Cuno was bold, clueless, or both. (I’m going with the latter.)
Being a trouble-maker, I asked Cuno what he thought of the latest outrage perpetrated by his old nemesis, Malcolm Rogers. (You may recall that the MFA Boston has just rented more paintings to a commercial gallery in a Las Vegas casino.)
Cuno, after reminding the audience that he’d long been a critic of Rogers’ shenanigans, that he was opposed to this rental. He gave three main reasons. To paraphrase:
1.) Claude Monet did not intend for his paintings to be shown in casinos. Cuno argued that an art museum, when deciding how and where to exhibit art, should take an artist’s intent into account. Monet specifically intended for his work to be shown in the greatest museums in France. There are no examples of him having accepted a commission from a Monte Carlo casino.
2.) A non-profit institution should not leverage its assets — in this case art — in such a way that a for-profit institution can make money off of them. (MFA Boston is renting art to a PaceWildenstein-operated gallery at the Bellagio.)
3.) The MFA Boston is a tax-exempt, non-profit institution. As a result of that tax exemption, the city of Boston and the commonwealth of Massachusetts make no tax monies on the MFA Boston’s property, etc. By renting paintings to a casino in Nevada and engaging in an intellectually and culturally vacuous enterprise with a for-profit business, the MFAB is effectively thumbing its nose at Boston and Massachusetts. Cuno pointed out that Rogers has repeatedly claimed that he’s giving the good people of Las Vegas a chance to see great art. Cuno countered that diversionary claim by pointing out that there are a great many people in Boston and Massachusetts who haven’t seen MFAB’s collection — why not focus on making sure they have that opportunity?
In the strangest moment of the evening, Corcoran boss David Levy actually took on Cuno, lamely half-arguing that museums should follow MFAB’s lead. Cuno was plainly stunned, mumbled something about how the discursive dialogue would continue, and went on with the Q&A. (Update: An emailer reminds me that at a recent Corcoran opening shindig, the gallery allowed someone to stand next to their admissions desk, hawking rugs “inspired by” The Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibit.)