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Museum as Gallery, Gallery as Museum
by Thea Liberty Nichols

Roughly three years ago, New York City gallerist Jeffery Deitch was tapped to serve as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (MoCA). It was an interesting selection given Deitch’s prior for-profit, commercial sector experience. What has followed are a series of eyebrow raising exhibitions, such as Dennis Hopper (curated by Julian Schnabel) and James Dean (curated by James Franco). Deitch, while largely lampooned by the press, has also had his supporters, who note that since his tenure at MoCA, attendance has skyrocketed, gala events have been spectacles befitting the film industry (think Marina Abramovic using live performers' heads as centerpieces) and several big names have been added to the museum’s board. His detractors often call attention to the mysterious departure of MoCA’s Chief Curator Paul Schimmel (notorious for butting heads with Deitch), and the members of the board the museum lost as a result, including John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, Catherine Opie and Ed Ruscha—effectively all of the museum’s prominent artist members it had so prided itself on.

Just last week it was announced that Schimmel will be doing the exact opposite of his former boss Deitch, and shifting from a celebrated decades-long career at MoCA (an institution he had worked for since 1990) to act as a partner for the Zurich/London/New York-gallery Hauser Wirth, now opening an LA outpost due 2015, to be named Hauser Wirth & Schimmel. Schimmel made it clear however, that although this is a commercial gallery, he will be reorganizing its exhibition schedule so that shows run longer, are more thoroughly researched and elucidated, and that they are dressed with many other museum-style fixings, including educational programming, scholarly publications and auxiliary programming.

With museum funding constantly in the crosshairs during the recession, it has suffered the fate of many other taxpayer dollar assisted institutions and services—there have been budget reductions and loss of income and they have had to do a lot more with a lot less, constantly imagining new ways to engage visitors and reinvent themselves and their “brand.” It's also lead to a strange phenomenon of museums essentially being privatized, which might include everything from single collector vanity museums popping up all over—most recently with Eli Broad’s museum in East Lansing, Michigan— to privately funded and held museums, such as Crystal Bridges, Walmart heiress Alice Walton’s museum located in Bentonville, Arkansas. And while museums may be under scrutiny to deliver on the public’s investment, they have also found themselves recognized for their full worth—in dollars and cents at least, as more and more museums look at ways to de-accession works in their collection to stay afloat; as Fisk University notoriously did with the sale of their Georgia O’Keefe collection to the aforementioned Crystal Bridges, and the salacious rumors recently abounding about the Detroit Institute of Art’s entire collection set for liquidation in a move to save the city from bankruptcy (fortunately, this prompted a Senate committee bill that just passed protecting against just such a thing).

So if fiscal solvency is the Achilles heel of these institutions, maybe the appearance of gallery-museums is the answer. By combining sustainable business practices with museum quality exhibitions, it’s a trend that could catch on, right?

Arturo Herrera, installation view at Corbett vs. Dempsy from 2012; Courtesy of the gallery.


A highly successful (albeit unofficial) version of the gallery-museum is Chicago’s own Corbett vs. Dempsy, a local commercial gallery specializing in Chicago and regional art—although within the past few years their program has expanded considerably to include artists such as Arturo Herrera, Albert Oehlen and Christopher Wool. Along with attending art fairs and holding openings, they’ve also published roughly sixty-five catalogs to accompany their many exhibitions; they regularly host an outstanding array of avant-garde musical performances (including, most recently, Ab Baars, Ken Vandermark and Jaap Blonk, respectively); and have curated several exhibitions for local museums and university art galleries (including Big Picture: A New View of Painting in Chicago for the Chicago History Museum in 2007 and Touch and Go: Ray Yoshida and his Spheres of Influence for The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Sullivan Galleries in 2010).

While the contemporary art world buzzes with examples of “socially engaged art” made by artists who are oftentimes equal-part entrepreneur, social worker, ecologist, archivists, activist, chef and landscape architect, their arts administrative counterparts, in the form of gallerists who have also, in some ersatz sense, become museum directors, fundraise, publish and educate. Moreover, they are similarly engaged with making project-based work that is innovative, experimental and pioneering, but instead of “creative place making” like their socially engaged artistic counterparts call it, they are creative marketplace making. And that’s where the “gallery” part of gallery-museums comes in.

Whereas museums are stewards of their collections, galleries are stewards of their collectors. The question that socially engaged art often begs is, should artists (as opposed to government, social services, not-for-profits, etc.) be made responsible for the big bite their work attempts to chew? Economic revitalization, architectural redevelopment, resource allocation and pedagogical instruction are all tacit responsibilities of the role of the artist as we know it. The same may be asked of gallery-museums—plainly, should they be held responsible for the work museums are charged with carrying out? Although museums are far from neutral authorities, there’s the very sticky issue of conflict of interest; a gallerist with a financial stake in an artist’s success behaving like a disinterested third party (ostensibly like museums do) is problematic. And even if they profess to want to do many of the things that museums do, they face a similar challenge—namely, funding. Whereas museums have to scramble for municipal monies, grant funding and donor and board gifts, the bottom line is the name of the gallery game.

I would be saddened if the experience and expertise of curators like Paul Schimmel went quiet after such an unceremonious departure from the museum world, but I’m curious how his transition into the gallery world will work in practice. Will the “museum” aspects of the gallery be dumbed down and adopt the patois of the market place (as Deitch is often accused of in his running of MoCA), or will the “gallery” aspects of the enterprise be elevated to the level of reasoned, seasoned, curated museum-quality work (as Schimmel promises to do)? At best, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel may mark the beginning of a trend. At worst, they may just end up representing an intrepid exception to the rule.


Thea Liberty Nichols


(Image on top: Marina Abramovic's MoCA Gala, 2011; photo from AnimalNewYork)

Posted by Thea Liberty Nichols on 6/7/13 | tags: funding curators education Public private museum gallery

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