Museums' Delicate Dancing

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Right now, there are two exhibitions in Southern California--one in San Diego and the other in Los Angeles--both speaking volumes about the ways savvy museum directors and curators develop relationships with private collectors. In building their art collections, American museums have always depended on the “kindness of strangers” or, to put it more precisely, on the generosity of private collectors, while their European counterparts could count on royal patronage or government support. The current exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art presents a titillating view into the richness and variety of many private collections in San Diego. For example, I had no idea that there, in San Diego, could be a collector with a very discerning eye committed to collecting Greek and Roman art. Another surprise was to meet collectors who fell in love with 17th century Baroque paintings and in a few short years excelled in building quite an impressive collection. Altogether there are 25 private collections on display, each one represented by a few choice examples. This exhibition, appropriately titled “Personal Views,” has a bit of everything; from Pre-Columbian and African to Asian art, from 19th century French to Latin American art and definitely plenty of modern contemporary American art. The wall labels introduce each collector and tell their story of falling under the spell of art. I wouldn't be surprised if some of these collectors decide, in the near future, to donate a few of their artworks to this museum. After all, the very nature of an exhibition like this one is to forge stronger relationships with private collectors and, in a subtle way, to encourage their philanthropic inclinations. There is a lot of delicate dancing that takes place between a museum and a private collector that, hopefully, may lead to the decision to donate a work of art.

In 1992, LACMA became the lucky recipient of an excellent photographic collection from Audrey and Sydney Irmas. Their collection had an unusual focus: self-portraits by virtually every well-known (and some lesser-known) photographer of the last 150 years. While the San Diego Museum of Art is smartly wooing their collectors, LACMA's exhibition demonstrates the complex nature of arrangements between the collectors and the museum in negotiating the donation. The museum has agreed to show every few years either the entire Irmas collection or a selection of the works based on a chosen theme. The guest curator responsible for the current selection from this collection is Deborah Irmas, photo historian, writer, and also the daughter of the collectors, who played an important role in advising her parents on their acquisitions. This small but captivating exhibition has the self-explanatory title, “Masquerade: Role Playing in Self-Portraiture” and contains a number of gems by artists such as Nadar, Cindy Sherman, and Robert Mapplethorpe, all of them hiding behind elaborately constructed aliases. Worth mentioning is the rather unusual fact that this private collection, owned by the museum, is still growing thanks to the generosity of Audrey Irmas, who continues to acquire new works to add to the already impressive collection.

And while I'm talking about San Diego and Los Angeles, let me mention a happy coincidence of two exhibitions of rare works by the 17th century Baroque Italian artist, Guercino; his highly-theatrical religious paintings at the Timken Museum of Art in Balboa Park and his rapid-fire drawings, with their palpable sense of immediacy, at the Getty Museum. In a better world, these two museums, for the benefit of the public, could probably find a way to collaborate in showing the art of the same artist. At least each museum could inform their visitors about the exhibition of the same artist currently on display in the other museum. I find it ironic that in our age of information museums sometimes fall behind in the simple task of sharing information.

Personal Views: Regarding Private Collections in San Diego
San Diego Museum of Art
On view until January 7, 2007

Masquerade: Role Playing in Self-Portraiture
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
On view until January 7, 2007

Guercino: Mind to Paper
Getty Center
On view until January 21, 2007

Timken Museum of Art
San Diego
On view until January 7, 2007