Museums and Private Collectors: It Takes Two to Tango

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at080401c.jpgMy fellow Angelenos, judging by the numerous exhibitions of contemporary art currently on display in various Los Angeles museums, I want to assure you that the state of art in our city is strong. The opening of BCAM, the new addition to LACMA, made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. It's anyone's guess what the future holds for the complicated relationship between volatile billionaire collector Eli Broad and LACMA, but for the next year at least, the best 200-plus works from his impressive collection of contemporary art will remain on view at the elegant new pavilion built by Renzo Piano. The Museum of Contemporary Art, with two large spaces downtown and a third, smaller one in West Hollywood, steadfastly organizes ambitious exhibitions and publishes scholarly catalogs -– all that in spite of an inadequate endowment and lack of public funds. The Hammer Museum continues to delight with its steady stream of cutting-edge exhibitions and in the last few years has gained enough support from museum trustees to start to build its own collection of contemporary art.

at080401b.jpgThe small and feisty Santa Monica Museum is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a gutsy -– even slightly dangerous –- exhibition by conceptual artist Michael Asher, who reconstructed the skeletal frameworks of all the walls built for temporary exhibitions during the last ten years. Visitors are required to sign a release form indicating that they understand the danger of squeezing through the tight labyrinth of wooden and metal studs. Even the Getty, the stronghold of ancient and Old Master art, has been showing an admirable commitment to contemporary art, the latest example being the impressive survey of California video art.

at080401a.jpg Being a skeptic -– and what else do you expect from an art critic? -– I wonder, is there enough good art out there to satisfy the need of so many museums which have jumped on the contemporary art bandwagon? The art market is booming. Museum trustees, most of them avid collectors of contemporary art, are eager to show off their collections in their museums. Many of these collectors, demonstrating what used to be called noblesse oblige, have generously donated their collections to their institutions. The title of the current exhibition at MOCA, Collecting Collections, says it all. In slightly more than twenty years of its existence, the museum has built a surprisingly in-depth permanent collection through donations and acquisitions of important private collections. The only problem is that after the exhibition closes, most of this art, for lack of gallery space, will go back into storage. I find it strange and disappointing that MOCA's trustees are unable to raise the $5 million reportedly needed to upgrade the climate control for its Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo. This sprawling space could be ideal for permanent display of the museum's collections.

at080401d.jpg In their continuous courtship of powerful collectors, museums run the risk of ending up with egg on their public face. Here is the latest example, reported by The Art Newspaper. The Louisiana Museum in Denmark spent money on organizing an exhibition of a private collection of contemporary Chinese art, accompanied by a glossy catalog. Then the exhibition traveled to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Two days after it closed there, the collector announced that he would be selling the collection through Sotheby's. I would describe the collector's behavior as rather cheesy, but the museums are not without blame themselves. Do you think it was wise of these two respected institutions to partner with a billionaire whose history of collecting such art goes back a meager three years?

Michael Asher
On view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art
Through April 12, 2008 

Collecting Collections
On view at MOCA Grand Avenue
Trough May 19, 2008 

Banner image: Moca Grand Avenue