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The Art World's Intrinsic Conflict of Interest: Curating the Private Collection with the Public Trust
by Ryan Wong

The cousin, flip side, and feeder to the museum, in today’s money-saturated world of contemporary art, is the private collection. The necessity of this relationship might be surprising to the average museum visitor, who often looks to museums as the centers of the art world. Private collections, however, shape our understanding of art history and production not only by determining which artworks are available for display and loan, but by actively applying curatorial labor towards their care and interpretation. Who gains from these relationships, and what sustains them? Are they necessary for the functioning of the art world, and if so, why? What are the responsibilities of curators, entrusted with public institutions, when dealing with private collections, and to whom are they responsible?

The liaisons between the worlds of the collection and the exhibition are curators: both museum curators who build relations with collectors to secure important loans and contributions, as well as a younger, new brand of curator using collections as a space to build their careers without an institutional foothold.

Curators are often tasked with “friend-raising”—with establishing strong networks of donors and potential donors to support museum exhibitions and acquisitions. These relations can take many forms, and often research, social activity, and professional fundraising blur into one activity. Massimiliano Gioni, when he joined the New Museum as Associate Director and Director of Exhibitions, kept his role as the artistic director of the Trussardi Foundation, a private non-profit that mounts contemporary art exhibitions (it does not collect). He has held the position since 2002. The Kadist Art Foundation counts among its advisors Jens Hoffman, Larry Rinder, and Hou Hanru: all of whom oversee museum or exhibition programs. It was recently announced that Michael Darling, Chief Curator at The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, is leading a selection committee to acquire a work for the offices of Northern Trust, a wealth management firm with over $200 billion in assets.

Is there not a conflict of interest inherent when the custodians of public museums simultaneously curate private collections? The Association of Art Museum Curators leaves the question of ethics up to each individual museum, stipulating in its advice section only that curators avoid “conflicts of interest.” Accepted activities include having a curator’s travel, food, and lodging paid for on a trip, if the trip fits the category of “donor cultivation.” Conflicts include gifts from donors and collectors, and sometimes even accepting work themselves. There is little guidance on whether the influence of a donor or collector over a curatorial program might be too great, or on how much of a curator’s time and advice may be spent with a collector.

Within the art world, museums still set the standard for critical debate, the resuscitation and reexamination of artistic legacies, and scholarly research within the art world: their exhibitions are the most consistently reviewed, they command the largest spaces, and they attract the most visitors. But they no longer have a monopoly on that work. Indeed, while the museum standard appeals to private foundations and collectors for partnerships, those partnerships are creating a more fluid border for museum sovereignty.

Meanwhile, young curators no longer need to follow the traditional script: to train for a PhD then look for a research or curatorial assistant post with the hope of eventually securing a museum curating job. Private collections are offering an alternative route, using private dollars to sponsor the apprenticeship and training that used to happen almost exclusively in museums.


Fondazione Re Rebaudengo, photo Maurizio Elia.


The self-titled Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo runs a residency program for young curators nominated from prestigious curatorial studies programs like Bard, the Whitney ISP, and Goldsmiths. The curator spends four months with the collection, culminating with an exhibition of contemporary Italian art drawn from it. Similarly, the Demergon Curatorial Award invites MA students to propose exhibitions based on works from the collection of D. Daskalopoulos, a collection of international contemporary art with an emphasis on Greek artists. The Demergon foundation also hosts curatorial exchanges between the UK and Greece. The prize is co-sponsored by the Whitechapel Gallery in London.

Pool, an initiative founded last year by curator Beatrix Ruf with wealthy patrons Maja Hoffmann and Michael Ringier, has given three young curators opportunities to mount exhibitions drawn from Hoffmann and Ringier’s collections at Luma Westbau in the Löwenbräu Art Complex. It plans to expand the number of collections available, offering a sort of meta-collection for the curators’ proposals. Pool has assembled a superstar roster of artists and curators as advisors, with Philippe Parreno, Liam Gillick, Tom Eccles, and Hans Ulrich Obrist. This roster signals a major shift in our thinking about the seriousness of curating private collections. As Ruf told Art Newspaper: “‘Pool’ does not interpret private collections as merely the representation of individual preferences, but rather as a contemporary document.”

Indeed, as contemporary documents, private collections are actively shaping the public’s relation to art. Any curator working with objects, and especially those working with contemporary art, must learn not only the theories and disciplines taught in graduate school, but also the rosters of major collectors and foundations in the landscape. As long as there are eager young curators to fill the roles in both institutions and private collections, and as long as institutions rely on private donors for the immense sums needed to collect, insure, and ship artworks, these partnerships will proliferate. 

Collecting, then, might be seen as its own sort of curatorial project. In the past, collecting shaped taste. Today, with the growth of these programs and open relationships with museums, such partnerships might seem a natural part of the way the system functions. But when prominent museum curators working in the public trust are also on the payrolls of private collections, we should see the conflicts of interest for what they are and view these activities with a healthy sense of skepticism. They may be shaping the very structure of knowledge within the art world.


Ryan Wong


(Image at top: ‘Go! You sure? Yeah.’, A POOL exhibition, Curated by Nicola Ruffo and Tanja Trampe, November 23 - January 19, 2014; Courtesy POOL.)

Posted by Ryan Wong on 8/21/14 | tags: museums collector's catalogue private collections curators

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