The Diminishing Role of Museums in Today's Art World

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After the five long, tortuous years that it took Italian authorities to make their dubious case against former Getty Museum antiquities curator Marion True, the trial is over -- at last. It didn't prove either the curator's innocence or the validity of the prosecutors' claim that True knowingly acquired for the Getty numerous ancient artifacts which had been illegally excavated and then smuggled out of Italy. In an all-too-familiar example of excruciating Italian bureaucracy, the criminal charges simply exceeded the statute of limitations, and the trial, as the LA Times put it, "ended in a bureaucratic whimper."

at101019a.jpgYou want another example of Italian cultural politics at its most absurd? How about the latest case, where lawyers representing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are busying themselves fighting over the ownership of...Michelangelo's statue of David, claiming that it belongs not to the city of Florence, but rather to the Italian state. Watching our Italian friends behave like spoiled children, one is tempted to admonish them with, "Hush now, enough is enough." Meanwhile, let's see what's brewing here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

at101019b.jpgUntil a couple of decades ago, it was unthinkable for American museums to exhibit private art collections, unless a significant portion of the collection was promised to the museum as a gift. However, in the ensuing years, the dynamic of the relationship between museums and private collectors has shifted, and we are now witnessing a situation in which wealthy collectors are calling the shots and museums are all too eager to accommodate them. A number of eyebrows were raised when The New Museum in New York showcased last year the private collection of one of its trustees, Greek billionaire Dakis Joannou, with an exhibition curated by the ubiquitous Jeff Koons, a celebrity artist whose works are favored by billionaire collectors everywhere.

at101019c.jpgIn the past, museums did honor to collectors by presenting their art, but now, with museums often priced out of acquisitions of major artworks, they are actively soliciting private collectors to exhibit their trophy collections, without expectation that any of the shown works would be donated to the museum. In the case of the high-profile current exhibition of the private collection of Lynda and Stewart Resnick at LACMA, the museum received from the Resnicks a promise of a gift of artworks valued at $10 million. And that's in addition to the $45 million that they generously donated to the construction of the new museum pavilion built by Renzo Piano. It's quite a different story with the exhibition of the private collection of Renaissance and Baroque bronze sculptures currently on display at the Huntington Library. It belongs to New York interior designer Peter Marino, and as far as we know, none of the 28 statuettes have been promised to the museum.

More and more these days, wealthy collectors and super-mighty art dealers are shaping our perception of the art world -- territory once dominated by museums. Here in Los Angeles, the art scene is to a large extent defined by museums founded by private collectors: the Getty, the Huntington, the Hammer, the Norton Simon, and not one, but two museums bearing the name of billionaire collectors Eli and Edythe Broad. Mr. Broad dangled his collection in front of LACMA, then changed his mind, and later yet rose to the occasion and saved a different museum -- MOCA -- from financial ruin of its own making.

at101019e.jpg To tell you the truth, I am very tempted to see the self-congratulatory exhibition organized by Arne Glimcher at all four Manhattan locations of his Pace Gallery in celebration of its 50th anniversary. Most museums would give an arm and a leg to show such an endless parade of masterpieces.

at101019d.jpgAnd if you're curious about seeing the private collection belonging to none other than über-dealer Larry Gagosian, who operates eight galleries around the world, you have to travel to Abu Dhabi. There, in a cavernous new cultural center, the dealer, for the first time, allows us a glimpse of his amazing personal collection: 72 works by major American artists -- a mere fragment of his entire collection. Yes, money does talk, but in today's art world, money talks louder than ever before.

Beauty and Power: Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes from the Peter Marino Collection
On view at the Huntington Library through January 24

50 Years at Pace
On view at four Pace Gallery locations through October 23

Banner image: (L) Art dealer Larry Gagosian; (C) Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait, 1964; synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas, 20 x 16 inches; (R) Robert Rauschenberg, Overdrive, 1963; oil and silkscreen ink on canvas, 84 x 60 inches