Despite Association of Art Museum Director guidelines telling member museums that “the collections a museum holds in public trust do not represent financial assets that may be converted to cash for operating or capital needs, or pledged as collateral for loans,” AAMD continues to look away as museum after museum partners with commercial entities to rent out art for cash.
The latest: The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego is currently renting art from its collection to the “Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art,” a space in Las Vegas’ Bellagio hotel-and-casino. The presentation will be on view through Sept. 7.
The MCASD is the third museum to allow a commercial entity the opportunity to make money off of its collection by renting it to the casino-based gallery. The Phillips Collection pioneered the collection-goes-to-Vegas model in 2000 by splitting admissions revenue with the Bellagio — and AAMD looked the other way. The MFA Boston took the concept a step further by accepting over $1 million from PaceWildenstein’s PaperBall subsidiary in return for sending 21 Monets (and later other paintings) to the Bellagio. Each time Boston rented out art to a commercial entity, AAMD shrugged.
So can it really be a surprise that a third museum has flouted the AAMD’s alleged guidelines and, according to multiple sources, at its most recent meeting left undiscussed this latest monetization of a museum collection?
The MCASD-Bellagio deal
According to MCASD director Hugh Davies, under the terms of San Diego’s arrangement with the Bellagio (Paperball no longer runs the the Bellagio gallery), the MCASD receives a flat fee for renting contemporary works by Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Sol LeWitt, Andy Warhol and others to the casino. In addition, MCASD staff assisted the Bellagio in setting up an exhibition store.
Davies refused to say how much money the museum was receiving from the Bellagio, which is charging $15 to visit the installation. (In time there should be some good hints in the MCASD’s tax return.) Davies said that about 7,000 people have visited since the show opened on Jan. 23.
MCASD doesn’t mention the questionable arrangement anywhere on its own website, but six MCASD works are visible on the Bellagio’s site. MCASD’s Flickr stream features images from the opening of the rental. [Image: Ellsworth Kelly, Red Blue Green, 1963.]
“The folks at Bellagio put a fair amount of time and energy into re-doing that gallery so it could host larger-scale contemporary works,” Davies told me on Tuesday. “To their credit they even had to take a wall out of their bookstore in order to get the large Warhol in there. They did whatever they had to do to get it right. They’ve tried to make it a serious museum presentation rather than dumb it down or something like that.”
MCASD’s transaction would seem to violate several guidelines laid down by the Association of American Museums (of which MCASD is a member) and by AAMD (of which Davies is a member and former president).
Both AAM and AAMD cite the protection of art as a major charge of museums and as a major reason not to rent out art for financial gain. In addition to the passage from AAMD’s handbook, “Professional Practices in Art Museums,” noted above, AAMD also mandates that:
“In any decision about a proposed loan from the collection, the intellectual merit and educational benefits, as well as the protection of the work of art, must be the primary considerations, rather than possible financial gain.”
“For me the best reason to do this is that Las Vegas, which is the fastest-growing city in the U.S., is far and away the largest city without a collecting art museum,” Davies said. “I think it’s an unhappy coincidence that they’re closing the Las Vegas Art Museum as we’re doing this.
“I see it as a very good thing for us to do, to lend to this city that doesn’t have a collecting museum first-rate examples of classic contemporary art… that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to see in their own hometown. I see it not in a patronizing, or in a missionary way, but as a very non-elitist thing to do.”
Coming this afternoon: The debate over the practice.