PRINT May 1985


INCREASINGLY CONSTRAINED BY BUREAUCRATIC structures, escalating operating costs, insufficient acquisition funds, and cautious curators, museums seeking contemporary works of art face stiff competition from private collectors who can move quickly to purchase at a moment’s notice. Although dealers usually save pictures for museums, several recent shows derived from private collections suggest an exhibition strategy based loosely on something like “if you can’t beat them, borrow from them.”

A cluster of these doubleheaders took place during the past year. In Paris, for example, the de Menil collection was the major attraction at the Grand Palais last spring. In Chicago this winter, “Dada and Surrealism in Chicago Collections” presented 400 works from 56 collectors at the Museum of Contemporary Art. “Contemporary Italian Masterpieces” from Chicago collections were shown last summer, and currently on view is a selection of 125 contemporary works owned by William J. Hokin.

A Los Angeles variant is the exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Temporary Contemporary building of 80 major Abstract Expressionist, Pop, and other works from the collection of Count Buomo di Panza. Panza, a trustee of MoCA, purchased many of these works soon after they were produced, and sold them to the museum for $11 million. Founding chairman of the board Eli Broad, who negotiated the sale, hailed it as “the largest and most significant acquisition by any museum of post-World War II art.” Meanwhile, this spring, collectors Charles and Doris Saatchi installed a small selection of the work they own as the inaugural exhibition in a museum-type private space, an unmarked converted factory. A four-volume catalogue with essays by art historians and critics documents and validates this remarkable accumulation, one of the largest private collections of recent art in the world.

Each of these examples is unique, arising from a variety of personal motivations and institutional settings. And artists and critics do undertake studies that shed light on the shifting definitions and relationships between patrons and their beneficiaries, and that reveal the underlying political and economic dynamics as well as the ideological assumptions shaping these transactions. Still echoing the political and situational concerns of the ’70s, Hans Haacke’s investigations of the invasion of culture by political ambition constitute one such study. Yet Haacke’s position of artistic integrity, and his exposure of connivance and of the cultural power plays of collectors are ultimately framed by the museum, the institution that above all others recognizes and historicizes 20th-century art; at some point he is obliged to admit a degree of compromise. As a professional in a highly specialized and commercialized art world, and at the risk of being naive, one finally has to assume some degree of good faith in the donors, public institutions, and artists involved in these transactions and in the media that record them. At the same time one must remain attentive to them.

Printed above a reproduction of the Mona Lisa in the MoCA handout The Contemporary is a photograph of Count Panza and his wife. The painting appears as an illustration of Panza’s discussion of it in the accompanying text, and to demonstrate that great works of art are inexhaustible and know no chronological boundaries. Such a juxtaposition of models—Renaissance artwork and contemporary collector—also suggests that artistic genius has traditionally been linked to inspired patronage. (In the declension of culture there is still nothing like European pedigree.) Yet historically the situation is much more complex and even contradictory. For example, in his study of patronage in 17th-century Italy, Patrons and Painters (1980), Francis Haskell notes that “whereas . . . Veronese’s and Tinloretto’s paintings had been devoted to glorifying Venice, Tiepolo was employed far more to exalt individual families.” Patrons, like collectors are not impartial or dispassionate in their choices. However, Haskell concludes that artistic patronage ultimately did not impose esthetic guidelines. In England and France at the end of the 18th century, painting flowered despite the flounderings of the aristocracy; in Italy, by contrast, artists were so dependent on patronage that when the political power of Venice and Rome declined, they "could not adapt themselves to new conditions when the foundations of that society collapsed.”

Recognizing the differences between patrons and collectors, I am less interested in finding historic examples of decadence or conspiracy than in noting contemporary displacement. It is striking that many of the collections currently being exhibited are international in scope: they are part of a system that transfers works of art from where they are produced to other a system that also depends on dealers and more recently on the peripatetic teams of powerful curators who orchestrate international exhibitions—first in Europe and coming soon to Pittsburgh in the form of the Carnegie International. This erosion of boundaries between nations need not worry us, but there is a more troublesome slippage of the functional boundaries between curator and collector. According to MoCA curator Julia Brown, Panza "designed the installation of the exhibition, including the determination of spaces, placement of individual works, flow of movement of the public, lighting and signage.” This description invites us to think that such spectacular exhibitions are merely a reflex of proprietorship. But this is an illusion charismatic collectors are filling a void left by curators who’ve become passive agents in positions calcified by demands of scholarly objectivity, institutional responsibility, and public acceptance.

Not only do collectors begin to displace curators, but they displace the artist in celebrity status. In marketing brochures accompanying these exhibitions the generation of buyers who purchased Impressionist pictures has been labeled avant-garde, and Panza is already legendary. By now everyone agrees that the image of the heroic alienated artist is not only exhausted but suspect, requiring revisions and reevaluation. Applied to the collector, it is fresher but no less misleading. Striving to be hip to post-Modern fluidity is one thing, but there needs to be some distinction between purposes, some awareness of functional differences between producers, distributors, and receivers.

Another dynamic of the collection exhibition is of course the traditional and valid interface of civic and cultural pride, pitting institution against institution and promoting competition for collections through temporary exhibitions in a sort of courtship ritual or at tempt to insure against future losses. (Chicagoan Muriel Newman’s donation of her Abstract Expressionist collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, has not yet been forgotten.) For audiences there is an opportunity to see a collection that previously was hidden, mystified; an element of voyeurism still helps bring in crowds. For critics, the opportunity to evaluate or analyze is somewhat mediated by the potential harm such analysis, if not totally positive, could do to the museum, the city, or even the country trying to land the catch. Another reason why museums are exhibiting collections is because it is an efficient, economic way to show contemporary work soon after it is made without assuming curatorial initiative and without waiting for the time-consuming process of critical evaluation. Indeed, the collection exhibition accelerates the process of legitimization, as artworks acquire instant pedigrees and provenances. Since museums depend increasingly on corporate funding and since corporations can be wary of untried new work, the collection exhibition can serve as a preemptive strike.

For the collector the motivations and rewards of proprietorship are equally complex, balancing between love of art, status, investment in culture, and commemoration of family name. At the Art Institute of Chicago at least there has always been a tradition of representing private collections among the key holdings, themselves donations from the Palmer, Bartlett, and Eddy families. Often, collections of contemporary work are acquired by mavericks, individuals whose institutional commitments may not yet be firmly set Joseph Randall Shapiro, whose Surrealist collection was just shown at the Art Institute, has described some of the basic human motivations of collection: “ . . . collecting with a view to ultimately giving the art to an institution . . . is just another way of denying the tyrant called death. A yearning or seeking for immortality—to live beyond the grave . . . to deny death’s existence. There’s an unconscious wish to live forever. And if you can’t do it yourself, you do it through some metamorphosis of an object.” Such wishes are not really unconscious—they have been a permanent feature of Western social relations since aristocratic patrons donated their treasures to medieval churches and monasteries, and Renaissance businessmen and bankers lavished their wealth on churches, private palaces, and favored artists. It is clear, then, that what we call culture is predicated on the transformation of private wealth and ownership into public treasure and civic honor. Here the real tyrant, culture, has triumphed over nature. Nevertheless Shapiro may also be correct, for he too may be remembered among the great patrons of what will become the future generation’s collective past.

Judith Russi Kirshner