Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

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“MFA in Vegas, Baby. These spirited entertainers, seen here with MFA Director Malcolm Rogers at the opening of the Art of the Americas wing, are a colorful reminder that 20 paintings by Claude Monet from the MFA, along with many works by Monet’s contemporaries, will be on view at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art in Las Vegas through January 2013. The MFA’s collection is so rich with Impressionist holdings that we are able to share these beautiful works of art with children and families in other cities who might never come to Boston, while always providing a sumptuous display of Impressionist art for visitors to our own galleries.”

The photograph and caption are from the MFA Boston’s Facebook page.

Related: My 2005 Boston Globe op-ed on the museum’s decision to rent out paintings in Las Vegas. In case that’s behind a paywall, I’ve also posted it in the jump.

Privatizing fine arts
By Tyler Green  |  July 4, 2005
In the late 1800s, nearly all of America’s art collections were privately held by wealthy men. By the end of the century, many of them decided that the enjoyment of art should not be confined to the elite few. From St. Louis to Boston they created museums and filled them with their collections. While the museums would be private, nonprofit organizations, they would hold mankind’s cultural heritage in a public trust, accessible to all. In a thoroughly American way, high culture was democratized.
The Museum of Fine Arts and its director Malcolm Rogers are working hard to put an end to all that. Twice in two years Rogers has determined that private cash should once again be the determinant of access, just as it was before museums such as the MFA were created.
Today institutions such as the MFA have America’s greatest collections. Instead of sharing art as his forefathers did, Rogers has decided to remonetize his collection by renting it out. Earlier this month, the MFA rented 34 paintings to a subsidiary of an art-dealing corporation, PaceWildenstein. Pace operates the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art in the Las Vegas casino of the same name, and is exhibiting the work as ”The Impressionist Landscape from Corot to Van Gogh.”
The arrangement mimics the rental that sent 21 of the MFA’s Monets to the Bellagio last year: This is a clear violation of standards laid down by the American Association of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors.
There are plenty of reasons why the MFA’s deal is wrong:
A museum’s first and most basic responsibility is to preserve its art for eternity. By renting paintings to a gallery in a Las Vegas casino, the MFA has put its treasures at risk.
No institution should better know this. In April 2004, during the Monet rental, the Bellagio’s power blinked out for three and a half days. Throughout the outage, the temperature was in the mid-80s and the sun shone brightly. That is not conducive to the health of old paintings.
The Monets were probably not seriously damaged, but the incident should have served as a reminder why museums do not send out art to spaces that have not been accredited for art display.
A nonprofit institution should not use its core assets — in this case art — in a way that enables a for-profit entity to make money from them. Nonprofit institutions, including museums, are not mere holding companies available for private businesses to mine for profit.
As a nonprofit institution, the MFA is tax exempt. By virtue of our nation’s tax laws, Americans have agreed that museums such as the MFA serve our nation by holding cultural treasures in trust.
Not only has the federal government given the MFA an exemption from federal taxes, but the Commonwealth of Massachusetts does not receive tax revenue from the MFA’s property or income either. By renting paintings to a gallery in a Nevada casino through a for-profit business, the MFA is dissing Boston and Massachusetts.
In answer to his critics, Rogers plays the populist. Last September, during a a speech at the MFA, Rogers rhapsodized about how wonderful it was to see the schoolchildren of Las Vegas flowing through the Monet exhibit. He also told his audience about watching a Nevada TV weatherman ask his audience why East Coast snobs thought Vegas should be denied Monets.
If the babes of the Vegas Strip are so important to Rogers, he should help create a museum that serves Nevadans. Alternately, he could loan the MFA’s Monets to an accredited museum in Las Vegas, instead of renting them. At the very least Rogers should stop pretending that renting paintings so that a private business can charge $15 to see them is altruistic populism rather than profit-motivated enterprise.
The MFA’s rental deals are wrong for lots of ethical and moral reasons. In recent years Congress and many state attorneys general have shown a willingness to investigate nonprofit institutions that misuse their tax-exempt status. The Senate Finance Committee, for example, recently concluded an investigation of The Nature Conservancy that led to changes in the group’s operations. The MFA’s dealings deserve the same scrutiny.
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  1. Scott Habes says:

    Another wrinkle to this story is the fact that there was a mad dash to hire a gallery director for the Bellagio less than a month before the Monet show opened:


  2. Mark (in Boston) says:

    Roger’s crying hardship when the City of Boston reasonably asks the MFA to come up with some P.I.L.O.T. is even more pathetic in light of the practice you highlight above (and back in 2005 – thanks for reposting your op-ed!). At a time when the MBTA is struggling under an enormous debt load and hefty operating budget deficit that threaten to decimate this essential public good, the MFA is basically saying that there’s no need for it to contribute to the cost and upkeep of the service that ferries thousands of $22 admission-paying visitors directly to their doorstep. The T stop is also conveniently named Museum of Fine Arts. But that probably doesn’t have any monetary value to the MFA either now, does it?

  3. […] gallery in a Las Vegas casino.) I’ve written about these collection-rental shows many times before, so I won’t re-count my arguments at length here. In short: They re-monetize art that […]

  4. […] out much of its Dutch collection. He also got the idea from the Baltimore Museum of Art, from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and from every other museum that has monetized its collection by renting out art. Sadly, […]

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