Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

The debate over collection-to-casino rentals

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LeWittFloorPiece4MCASD.jpgContinued from here…

When MCASD director Hugh Davies asked me why
I object to the deal MCASD has done with the
, I told him that one reason is that I think non-profits should focus on their missions, and not on providing profit opportunities for business.

One of the fundamental principles of non-profit institutions is that 501c3s are not holding companies that for-profit organizations or individuals can raid for profit-making activities. (This is part of why the Nature Conservancy was investigated by Congress in 2003, and it’s part of why I think that Congress and the relevant state attorney generals should investigate the way non-profits are increasingly monetizing art in clear violation of the museum sector’s own rules, such as at the National Academy and with the Bellagio Three.)¬† [Image: Sol LeWitt, Floor Piece #4, 1976.]

“Well, we have been paid a fee [by the Bellagio] just as when we send any show traveling,” Davies replied. “Yes, the fee is larger than the normal fee you would expect if you send a traveling show of permanent collection works as we have to the Sheldon Museum, to the High, the Weatherspoon and so on. If we charge $50,000 for that plus prorated shipping and insurance, why is it any different if we charge twice as much because of the length of the time period to Las Vegas? The work is only moving once, we used the same fine art movers, and so on?

“I can see why the fact that the Bellagio casino is a for-profit corporation means that the context appears sullied. But I’m just looking at the fact that they run a perfectly high-standard gallery. Their security and their air-handling systems are as good or better than 90 percent of US museums.”

I told Davies that I didn’t necessarily agree, that when MFA Boston’s first loan was at the Bellagio that the hotel-casino’s power went out for four days and that the art baked. The MFA had to send out specialists to make sure the temperature was reduced gradually and despite repeated requests the MFA never released any information regarding whether or not works were damaged. Davies said that he was unaware of the Bellagio’s earlier power issue.

Davies and I discussed several other aspects of the arrangement, but one in particular sticks in my head. The Brandeis University president views the Rose Art Museum’s art collection as an asset to monetize. (Davies is a former adviser to the Rose and he wrote Brandeis¬† an angry letter about what it’s trying to do.) Albeit through a different instrument, isn’t that what MCASD is doing here: monetizing an asset?

StellaSabraIII.jpg“No more than when the Phillips is when it re-does their air-handling system [and sends its collection on the road],” Davies said. “I always find amusing when these institutions fix their air-handling systems and the collections travel for two or three years! It’s a way of generating revenue, no question…

“I have been perversely trying to look at the other side of the coin. We museum directors can huff and puff
about how once we bring these artworks into our collections that they no longer have value because they’ve been removed from the market, that they become this special trust that is the patrimony of our cities and that they’re held in trust for future generations. It’s B.S. We go on and sell them and the rule is the proceeds form the sale can only go to replenish the collection.” [Image: Frank Stella, Sabra III, 1967.]

Finally, Davies said the Bellagio deal is a great way to raise the profile of MCASD, a much-admired museum that has a fine collection and strong programming, but which receives little national attention (except for on MAN).

“I cannot possibly spend to get billboards and airline magazine ads for our museum, and the Bellagio can and now every single one of them mentions MCASD,” Davies said. “You are never a prophet in your own land. So when people from Phoenix and Los Angeles go to Las Vegas and see this, it increases the knowledge and the reputation of our museum.”

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