There’s been lots of static in the art world recently about the issue of private collections being exhibited by museums. Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight has been one of the most vocal, calling out institutions on their presentations of these “vanity shows.” On his “Modern Art Notes” blog, respected art critic Tyler Green has passionately objected to this practice as well. Green has repeatedly called these exhibits “improper,” specifically taking to task the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) in his post, “A Season of Shame at LACMA, AIC.”
Exhibiting private collections opens up a huge can of wormy criticism. Showing a collection of art that isn’t a majority of gifts or promised gifts to the museum brings up questions of the intentionality by both parties. It becomes difficult to see these shows as being about anything more than a collector’s status, notoriety, ego, and wealth, and a museum’s interest in future acquisitions, be it art or funding.
One conflict of exhibiting artwork that is still a part of a private collection is that its value is likely to increase because it was shown at a major museum—a direct benefit to the collector if the art is ever sold or auctioned off. Another problem, as Green pointed out in a 2009 article, is that, “the U.S. Internal Revenue Code mandates that tax-exempt organizations must not operate for the benefit of private interests,” and showing a private collection arguably violates this. Knight mentions that the Museum of Modern Art has a written policy that prevents these shows, while some institutions, LACMA, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the New Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, to name a few, have no problems exhibiting private collections.
Paul Cézanne. French, 1839–1906. Bather with Outstretched Arms, 1874/77. Verso: Study of a Tree, 1874/77. Graphite on cream laid paper (piece); 179 x 111 mm. Promised gift of Richard and Mary L. Gray and the Gray Collection Trust.
An additional facet of the argument is that these shows shuck real educational opportunities and curatorial authority for some loosely connecting thread about the art—all of which becomes wholly secondary to the collector’s big name. A collector’s taste replaces curatorial insight and, worse still, culturally significant objects become mere trophies.
These concerns become even more pronounced when applied to the current exhibit at the AIC. “Gray Collection: Seven Centuries of Art,” is largely comprised of drawings and works on paper, all taken from the private collection of Richard and Mary Lackritz Gray. Richard Gray is not only a collector, but also a major art dealer with prominent galleries located in Chicago and New York. Nine pieces in the show are officially promised gifts, and Gray, a Life Trustee for the museum, announced in June that the bulk of his collection would end up at the AIC, though he was in conversation with other museums as well.
There's no question that Richard Gray’s careful eye and his wife Mary’s background in art history have amassed an amazing collection. From Italian Renaissance studies all the way through contemporary pieces by artists like Claes Oldenburg, the breadth and quality of the work is impressive. But little binds the exhibition together beyond basic chronology and the collector’s name.
Annibale Carracci. Italian, 1560–1609. Study of Hercules Resting, with Separate Studies of His Head and Foot, 1595/97. Verso: Rectangular Grid Design, 1595/97. Black chalk, heightened with white chalk, on blue laid paper, incised (recto); black chalk (verso); 259 x 395 mm. Richard and Mary L. Gray Collection.
It’s a major conflict of interest for the museum to host the collection of a prominent dealer who is currently retaining ownership of a majority of the works on view. At least in the AIC’s previous collection show “Selections from the Donna and Howard Stone Collection” all of the work was promised to the museum.
Is it fair to reduce all collectors to rich people who think of art as little more than another investment? The issue stirs up a lot of fervor, and rightfully so. But it’s not simply black or white.
Art museums have evolved from private collections, and are largely supported by donors. Private patronage has financed artistic production for centuries and will continue to do so. I certainly don’t want exhibitions to always be centered on the private treasure troves of a few, but the economy is a clear factor in the sudden frequency of single collector shows. So I’d rather see important art from these collections in person than not at all, rather it hidden away in a private residence, or worse, put in storage. Green seems to agree that art from private collections should be shown, but suggests the Miami model as a solution, where many collectors exhibit their collections on their own terms, in their own buildings.
Intentionality and egos pushed aside, the art is at the center of this argument. And the "Gray Collection" has lots of it, exceptional examples shown from a collection built by knowledgeable people that love art and have made significant contributions to AIC and the city of Chicago. That said, the dialog around showing private collections will no doubt continue as the second installment of their “Contemporary Collecting” series, "The Neisser Family Collection," begins a little too soon at the Art Institute.
-Mia DiMeo, ArtSlant Staff Writer