That question has emerged in the wake of the Indianapolis Museum of Art ‘leasing out’ its contemporary art curators as art consultants to a museum trustee’s business, a construction and real-estate firm called Buckingham Companies, for a reported $350,000 fee. IMA senior curator and contemporary art department chair Lisa Freiman selected 20 artists whose work Buckingham will purchase or commission for a hotel development in downtown Indianapolis. An IMA spokesperson said that the museum had also hired an “adjunct curator” to work on the project. Buckingham’s founder and president, Bradley Chambers, is an IMA trustee. The museum said that while Buckingham is its first client, that its new art consultancy is available to other potential customers as well. [Image: The Indianapolis Museum of Art via Flickr user Intiaz Rahim.]
The arrangement, which has been publicly announced but which is in the process of being contractually finalized, is apparently a first for an American art museum. It provides a non-traditional way for the museum to leverage Freiman’s status as the curator of the American pavilion at the most recent Venice Biennale. (Asked if “art consultant” was a term with which the IMA was comfortable, spokesperson Katie Zarich said that it was.)
MAN contacted numerous experts, including the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Association of Museums, and found no clear precedents for the IMA’s endeavor. Elizabeth Merritt, the director of AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums said that the only comparable analogy of which she was aware was the Cincinnati History Center’s hiring out its archivists to local corporations that wanted to improve their record-keeping.
“It seems to me that this is in many ways the exact opposite of the primary mission of art museums, which is to focus on education, on their collections and scholarship,” said Christine Steiner, a former general counsel at the J. Paul Getty Trust who has an extensive background in non-profit issues that includes working at the Smithsonian Institution and for the state of Maryland. Today Steiner’s private law practice works with artists and commissioning entities and she often works with art consultants. “To engage a curator who is presumbly is remaining on the museum payroll because the fee is being paid to the museum, to provide precisely the same curatorial services a curator is obligated to provide to the museum, that strikes me as an entirely new thing.”
Zarich said that she was unsure whether the museum had consulted AAM’s ethical guidelines in formulating its art consultant program, but that the museum had consulted AAMD’s guidelines. (The IMA is without a director or an interim director. The IMA’s board recently appointed a nine-person management council to lead the museum until a new director can be hired.) A MAN review of the ethical guidelines published by each institution failed to find anything that directly anticipates this particular situation. “The only AAM ethical guideline that would be relevant is whether there’s any potential conflict of interest,” Merritt said. [Image: Alyson Shotz, Geometry of Light, 2011.]
So far, the IMA’s art consultancy has made one recommendation that coincides with the museum’s own exhibition program. The IMA’s art consultancy recommended that Buckingham commission an installation by New York-based artist Alyson Shotz. Earlier this month, the museum announced that it will be installing numerous Shotzes, including a site-responsive work in its Efroymson Family Pavilion in May. The Shotz example raises questions about whether the museum might exhibit an artist to promote the IMA’s art consultancy business or a client’s project, whether the museum’s exhibition of a consultancy-recommended artist could enhance the value of art to which it leads a client, or if the museum would work with an artist at the museum in order to ‘protect’ its art consultancy’s selection of an artist.
“The problem for me is that museums lose their way in baby steps,” Steiner said. “They do something that seems appropriate and right, and before you know it you’re in the kinds of obviously conflicted arrangements that we thought were successfully addressed a couple of years ago, like the Guggenheim’s Armani show or the Metropolitan’s Chanel exhibition. Those all began with the right instinct and the right purpose but quickly went down the wrong path.”
In 1999 the Guggenheim accepted an eight-figure check from Giorgio Armani just as an Armani exhibition went on view at the museum. In 2004 the Metropolitan Museum of Art presented a Chanel exhibition that was closely tied to the company: The Met’s exhibit was sponsored by Chanel. The Met’s annual Costume Institute Benefit Gala was co-chaired by Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld. The Met’s web page for the exhibition was hosted on Chanel.com, which provided visitors with ready access to Chanel’s e-commerce offerings. More recently, the Metropolitan presented an Alexander McQueen exhibition that was sponsored by Alexander McQueen, a subsidiary of French multi-national PPR. [Image: Rendering of the proposed Alexander Hotel, via CityWay.]
Zarich, who is one of the staffers on the IMA’s interim management council, said that the museum’s commercial relationship with Buckingham is the byproduct of the museum’s recent attempts to develop new revenue streams. In 2010 the IMA launched IMA Lab, making the museum’s pioneering and widely-praised technology department available to other non-profit institutions for a fee. IMA Lab has taken on work for non-profits such as the Atlanta History Center and AAMD. According to Zarich, all of IMA Lab’s clients have been not-for-profit institutions.
Steiner said that the IMA Lab example is in keeping with industry-accepted norms. “There you are doing your work in support of a mission-related purpose for a fellow non-profit,” she said. “That’s the right way the museum lends you to the broader art or non-profit world.”
Steiner felt that the extension of the IMA Lab example into the for-profit sphere, where it would compete with independent art consultants, was problematic, but AMA’s Merritt suggested an analogy: “In the most general way it’s a second-cousin to this: Making their expertise available through speaking engagements.”
Zarich said that Buckingham and the IMA began talks with Buckingham in 2010, when Maxwell Anderson was the IMA’s director. Anderson left Indianapolis at the end of 2011 to become the director of the Dallas Museum of Art.
Anderson said that there was one substantial difference between the arrangement he began to negotiate and that the IMA concluded after he left. “I saw it as an opportunity to do something to reach out and then get something that would come back as a promised gift,” Anderson said, adding that while his conversations with Buckingham included that idea, negotiations between the IMA and Buckingham did not advance to the point where the two parties developed contractual language before he left the museum. [Image: Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing No. 652, Continuous Forms with Color Acrylic Washes Superimposed, 1990. Collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Image via Flickr user Shih-Pei Chang.]
Through a spokesperson, Chambers did not address the evolution of the negotiation between his company and the IMA. “Buckingham developed the agreement with the IMA to simply pay for curatorial services for consultation on the art acquired for The Alexander Hotel,” Chambers said in an emailed statement. “That agreement was made without any expectation that these works would be donated to the IMA. At this point, the agreement between Buckingham and the IMA only relates to the curatorial consulting services.”
Steiner said that if the works were to come to the IMA as a contractually pledged gift, that it would substantially change the situation from objectionable to innovative. “That has some legs,” she said. “And in some way it make sense. I had wondered if there were certain things we didn’t know after the museum made its announcement, and that would be a big one.”
Both Anderson and the IMA said that the art consultancy is related to the IMA’s mission. The IMA’s mission statement says the museum “serves the creative interests of its communities by fostering exploration of art, design, and the natural environment. The IMA promotes these interests through the collection, presentation, interpretation and conservation of its artistic, historic, and environmental assets.”
Zarich said that the new business fit the IMA’s mission statement because, “it was a way that we thought we could expose more people to art, that we could bring some more art to the city.” However, the museum said it would take the fee it is being paid as unrelated business income, a tax-law category that puts the arrangement in the same sphere as the museum bookstore.
Both the IMA’s past and present leadership cited what they described as contemporary art’s marginal status in Indianapolis as a reason for the museum to engage in outside consulting activity. However, the museum was unable to explain why a local business needed the local museum to provide those services instead of a traditional art consultant.
“I understand why commercial art consultants do this work,” Steiner said. “I don’t understand why a non-profit, an art museum would.”
“I think we also have a lot of activities — every museum does — that are ancillary and that are in support of its mission,” Anderson said. “Not every activity that any museum undertakes can be seen as a direct extension of the mission but, in theory, it is in support of it or otherwise. But in terms of how museums raise money, I don’t think the Armani show was in support of the Guggenheim’s mission. I think that was a commercial deal for the promotion of another entity, where this is a provision for the access to art and being remunerated for the expertise provided for it.”