Do Museums Love Themselves More Than They Love Art?

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at110830a.jpgOne of the most despicable things that can happen to a great work art — beyond destruction caused by some terrible calamity — is to be willfully cut in pieces for the greedy purpose of making more money through multiple sales. An example of such a disgraceful, greedy action happened to the remarkable group portrait by Frans Hals, famous 17th century Dutch painter. Two-hundred years ago this painting was cut in two pieces: the smaller one eventually ended up at the Royal Museum in Brussels, while the larger one, owned by a private European collector, was recently sold to an as yet unidentified US museum.

at110830b.jpgThere is good chance that these two divided parts will be reunited for temporary display either in the Belgian or American museum. In a similar situation a few years ago, the Getty Museum temporarily unified a great painting by Vittore Carpaccio, famous 15th century Venetian artist. The Getty owns only half of this painting; the other one belongs to a museum in Venice. It was a sheer delight to see this masterpiece the way the artist meant it to be. And it was simply painful to know that, after only a couple of months on view, the painting would be once again torn apart.

I wonder if, in both cases — with the paintings by Frans Hals and Vittore Carpaccio — the museums contemplated doing what I consider the right thing: to unify once and for all these cut apart paintings. Yes, it would take a lot of negotiation and the museum lucky enough to get the painting would probably have to agree, in exchange, to compensate the other party by offering an important artwork from its permanent collection. But for that to happen, museums must decide: what do they love most, themselves or the art?

at110830c.jpgWe like to perceive museums as paragons of virtue. And most of the time it's true, but not always. For example, it's been more than a year since the position of director of the Getty Museum became vacant. Will it be filled by yet another outside candidate with no local track record? A recent announcement by the Art Institute of Chicago that its new director had been appointed from its own curatorial ranks parallels a similar recent development at the Metropolitan Museum, where the new director was appointed from its own curatorial ranks as well. For as I long as I remember, nothing like that has happened here in Los Angeles, which demonstrates certain insecurity and lack of vision on the part of our museum trustees.

It seems that L.A.-based curators have been systematically overlooked for directorial positions by boards of their own museums while they've been snatched up by other major American and European institutions. That's how Anne Goldstein, former MOCA curator, ended up as director of the mighty Stedjilik Museum in Amsterdam. It's also how Bill Griswold, the Getty's former deputy director, was invited to Minneapolis to direct its Institute of Arts and then went to New York to head the Morgan Library.

And that's why the famous statement from the New Testament, that a prophet has no honor in his own land, is as relevant as ever.

To see images discussed in Art Talk, go to

Banner image: (L) Frans Hals, Family Portrait in a Landscape, ca. 1620(1620), 1628, Oil on canvas; (R) Frans Hals, Three Children with a Goat Cart, ca. 1620(1620), Oil on canvas