art · luxury

Why Private Tastes Run Public Art Museums

As an art enthusiast, I enjoy following the trends and learning more about the industry. Nowhere have I seen such a collision of creativity and business as I have in the art world. What I find especially fascinating is how art professionals make their mark or how they navigate these spaces during their careers.

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The Carpet Merchant of Cairo by Jean-Leon Gerome

I recently read an article by Felix Salmon explaining the unexpected termination of Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (MOCA LA) curator Helen Molesworth. The article indicates that the firing was “controversial”, so the opinions about the termination are varied. However, the underlying reason why Molesworth was released may be discerned from data related to her time at MOCA LA.

Data analytics were used to determine the difference between curatorial choices made by Molesworth and selections made by previous curators. The data confirmed that, prior to Molesworth’s tenure, the museum’s special exhibits prominently featured art “market darlings”: the artists that patrons regularly purchased for their personal collections and that had sold well at auctions. Artists that commanded high dollar prices at auction ($10+ million gross) were frequently featured in MOCA LA exhibits. However, during the three years that Molesworth was at MOCA LA, only two of her curated exhibits exceeded the $10 million gross amount.

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The Moorish Warrior by William Merritt Chase

This is a simple matter of economics: patrons know that the value of their investments needs to be affirmed by museums. Museums and patrons have a symbiotic relationship: they mutually affirm the value of certain artists’ works. It’s important that art “market darlings” are heavily featured so that art investors can justify the valuation of their investment.

Here lies the problem with Molesworth: she didn’t feature art “market darlings” prominently during her tenure. Her emphasis on display diverse artists that weren’t pulling in high dollar amounts at aucton didn’t win her any fans with the old art vanguard, namely, the trustees of MOCA LA. In many ways, her innovation and commitment to smaller, lesser known, less commercially popular artists sealed her fate.

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The Daughter of Herodias Dancing by James Tissot

An additional point of clarity: MOCA LA has minimal government funding. Donors are quoted as providing 80% of the museum’s funding. This means that it behooves the museum to consider the personal tastes of their financial supporters. Molesworth’s choices didn’t endear her to donors, because her curatorial choices didn’t reflect the work of the “market darlings”. Her curated exhibits didn’t affirm the value of donors’ collections; she was inadvertently setting the tone for a shift away from the “darlings” and a move toward more lesser known artists. A death knell like this could have been catastrophic for the valuation of donors’ private art collections.

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Study of a Moor in Blue by Edwin Lord Weeks

All his being said, I actually am in favor of MOCA LA’s decision. Museums that receive the majority of their funds from private donors are beholden, to extent, to the tastes of those donors. As a museum attempts to steer its collection and exhibits to align with the vision of the supporters, it makes sense to have curators that are also on board with that vision. I’m unsure whether MOCA LA expressed to Ms. Molesworth what they wanted from her in her role as curator, but I can hope that this was explained at some point. If not, some research on previous exhibits would have been wise: a cursory review would have revealed an affinity for certain artists. Molesworth could have gradually introduced artists with lower gross auction amounts while still curating exhibits that would be favored by the donors.

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The Old Blue-Tiled Mosque Outside of Delhi, India by Edwin Lord Weeks

The practical application in this case is this: when entering a new space, always do your research. The discussions among colleagues are great but the numbers don’t lie. Gather data and look for trends. See what the similarities are and plan accordingly. I don’t know that Molesworth could have completely avoided this – after all, she had to stay true to her own vision as a curator – but her research may have revealed that she wasn’t as good a fit for MOCA LA as she originally believed.

 

 

(This post featured art that had a Middle-Eastern/Indian theme. All photos courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum, as shown on archive.org)

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