Sadly, this season two of America’s most prominent museums will install fluff shows, exhibitions which seek to glorify a private collector and his/her acquisitiveness rather than independently investigate the history of art and culture.
As I briefly noted yesterday, LACMA will be showing about 85 objects from the collection of Lynda and Stewart Resnick, the couple who made a sizable donation to the building of the museum’s latest Renzo Piano big-box. The Art Institute is showing what it calls a “public presentation of [a] private treasure,” selections from the collection of art dealer Richard Gray and his wife Mary Lackritz Gray. The museum says that the exhibition “demonstrates that Chicago remains the home of ambitious collections of refined taste.”
As I’ve previously noted, these exhibitions are improper. Art museums and their supporters receive substantial tax benefits because art museums care for the world’s treasures and because we all benefit from the research and education they offer. They do not receive privileged status under the tax code so that they can serve as hagiographers for their trustees. (Lynda Resnick is a LACMA trustee.)
In the last year pressure to end these shows has increased: The New York Times exposed the practice in a front-page story that embarrassed both the New Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and at its most recent meeting the Association of Art Museum Directors discussed increasing concerns that these exhibitions were “extra benefits” made available to trustees and donors. Many museum leaders are concerned that the practice could draw the attention of federal or state authorities.
The AIC has done this kind of show before: In 2007 it showed a private collection of Islamic ceramics. LACMA is also a repeat offender: Its 2008 installation of selections from Cheech Marin’s art collection drew objections from both me and LAT art critic Christopher Knight, who also noted that the show was particularly objectionable because LACMA receives substantial public funds. The Marin exhibition also provided the rare example of a curator protesting the practice by keeping his name off the show. These shows are an insult to viewers — the little people who should apparently be grateful to see the shopping lists of the rich and well-connected — but they are a far greater insult to the professional scholars who work at art museums.