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Museums' disturbing transformation: relentless commercialization

Christopher Knight
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Art Critic

In January, the website IfOnly.com, a San Francisco lifestyle company that organizes and sells so-called curated experiences, began to offer exclusive, one-on-one private tours of a socially connected photography collector's Georgian mansion in Pacific Heights.

About a third of the collection's roughly 300 photographs had been featured as a 2012 exhibition at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. The company sales pitch touts the museum's imprimatur.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Gallery location: A July 19 article about the commercialization of museums said the Giant Robot Store and GR2 Gallery are in Santa Monica. They are in Los Angeles. Also, a July 26 Feedback letter that addressed the article was edited to repeat the error.
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The price of a 90-minute private tour: $3,500 and up.

A Wall Street Journal tech writer was frank in describing the company's general marketing plan: "[You] get to do some shoulder-rubbing with the jet-setter of your choice if you cough up the dough." Art museum pedigree adds luster.

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So does another, far more troubling fact: The businessman-collector is also a De Young trustee.

The link between the art museum and IfOnly is emblematic of a disturbing transformation, which has been unfolding over a generation: Museums are being relentlessly commercialized.

For-profit art dealers are organizing shows for nonprofit museums. Museum professionals are organizing shows for commercial art fairs and galleries. Museum collections are being monetized, rented out for profit to other museums and private corporations. Corporations are co-organizing museum shows.

Nonprofit status subsidizes museums through the public tax code. The status was invented more than a century ago to foster diversity of independent thought, free from the narrow economic demands of business or the ideological commands of government. Today, that independence is being corrupted as the wall separating art museums from business activities is crumbling.

In fact, so commonplace is the boundary-blurring that few any longer notice. A new normal is in the making.

Take the IfOnly "curated experience." The art, together with the town house, belongs to Trevor Traina, the Internet start-up entrepreneur behind the dot-com.

Not only is Traina on the De Young Museum's board, his mother, socialite and philanthropist Dede Wilsey, is its powerful longtime president. She held the position when her son's art collection was put on the exhibition schedule.

Two curators assembled the show, including publication of a book. One is on the museum's staff, the other is the private art advisor hired by Traina to help him buy his collection.

Conflicts of interest, real or perceived, were inescapable for everyone involved. Kenneth Baker, the recently retired San Francisco Chronicle art critic who panned the exhibition — he called its conceptual framework "slack" — further lamented the presentation as "an unseemly exercise" that "raised ethical questions rather than critical ones."

As if Baker's complaint mattered: The trustee's subsequent private-access sales pitch adds a fresh layer of commercial exploitation.

Museum commercialization is rampant in the new millennium. Here's a recent sampling from across the national landscape.

•The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery turned over curatorial duties to two local dealers for a pair of spring shows of artists represented by their Westside galleries, Copro and Thinkspace. A civic exhibition space became a 10,000-square-foot retail outlet.

•In June a Hirshhorn Museum curator organized an exhibition for Art Basel, the world's leading commercial art fair. A second Hirshhorn curator is serving on the advisory committee of Moving Image Istanbul, a new art fair in Turkey.

•A current exhibition at Atlanta's High Museum of Art celebrates "The Coca-Cola Bottle: An American Icon at 100." The museum organized the show in collaboration with the Coca-Cola Co. The board of trustees' vice chair for exhibitions is the son of influential Coke executive Donald R. Keough, a life trustee until his death in February. The High Museum is under the umbrella of the Robert W. Woodruff Arts Center, named for the longtime president of the locally based Coca-Cola Co., whose current CEO is a Woodruff Center trustee.

•The Worcester Art Museum's summer show is "Samurai!," built around newly acquired Japanese arms and armor. Guest curator Eric Nakamura, founder of Santa Monica's GR2 Gallery and Giant Robot Store, was hired to examine samurai culture's influence on current art and design. The exhibition features work by numerous artists shown at Giant Robot.

•New York's Guggenheim Museum is renting out 10 paintings from its collection, including masterpieces by Picasso, Kandinsky and Cezanne, to the El Paso Museum of Art. According to the contract obtained by The Times, the city-owned Texas museum is picking up local transportation, insurance and installation costs and paying a rental fee of $200,000 — far in excess of routine Guggenheim administrative expenses. The Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, have engaged in similar rentals, although ethics guidelines of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors forbid using a museum's permanent collection for financial gain.

•Next year the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will send more than 130 works from its Islamic art collection to the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, an event and exhibition hall currently under construction by energy giant Saudi Aramco at its Dhahran headquarters. Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, nationalized the oil company in 1980. In exchange for the two-year LACMA exhibition, the company is providing several million dollars in art conservation funds — effectively a rental with targeted income.

•In February, the Princeton University Art Museum hired a senior curator who will retain his current job as a paid consultant to Gagosian Gallery. John Elderfield, the distinguished former curator at the Museum of Modern Art, has been employed since 2012 by Gagosian, the commercial powerhouse with 14 international branches. He is also organizing a freelance show of Cezanne's portraits for Washington's National Gallery of Art.

•A current exhibition at Culver City's Mark Moore Gallery was organized by Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. Davies co-organized artist Vernon Fisher's 1989 midcareer survey at his museum. The commercial venture contravenes established ethics guidelines of the professional associations of both museum directors and curators.

These nine examples, all current or recent, range from minor to momentous. Yet the litany is revealing. Not so long ago the existence of just one would have raised eyebrows, if not a ruckus, but their proliferation barely registers today. Commercial intrusions are widely regarded with shoulder-shrugging nonchalance.

The question is: Why?

Partly it's because public funding has shrunk. By contrast, the sheer volume of private money now sloshing around the art world is unprecedented. Artists, galleries and museums all depend on the same wealthy patrons, who also dominate museum boards of trustees.

Art is a proven asset class, like bonds or real estate, and private assets require protection. The demand is met in part by the professional seal-of-approval afforded by museums, which implies lasting quality. Inside the institution, an urge to lower the bar in courting philanthropy grows powerful. When commercial pressure comes from outside, an institutional duty to say no requires exceptional fortitude, unusual cleverness or both.

The art world is also newly transnational. The United States' large and established nonprofit museum sector stands in marked contrast to more common state and private museum models with which it now engages. Globally the sector is distinctive, if not unique, on the world stage — but pressure for conformity builds.

Responsibility for this dramatic reversal does not lie with those participating on the commercial end of things. Artists make art to be seen, while dealers and consultants facilitate art's distribution. All can be knowledgeable, and none can force their way in. They'd be foolish not to grab the opportunity.

Instead, museums are flinging open their doors to commerce. Commitment to keeping trade at arm's length has eroded.

A Rubicon was crossed in 2010, when L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art made Jeffrey Deitch its fourth director. He was the first at a major American museum to be hired straight from the ranks of commercially successful art dealers rather than from a nonprofit.

Deitch's tenure was a short-lived fiasco. But even now, the art dealer's one museum success is regularly purported to be the record-breaking attendance garnered by a show of street art — a show whose guest curators were entrepreneurs with vested commercial interests in many of the exhibition's artists. Its rank commercialism typically goes unmentioned.

The erosion of the wall between art museums and commerce is a symptom of a larger generational shift that took off in the 1980s and has peaked in the 21st century: The drive to privatize public services and deregulate business, a hallmark of conservative and neoliberal doctrines.

Privatizing initiatives have aimed at diverse projects across a broad spectrum of American life, including state highway systems, college loan programs, federal prisons — even the U.S. military, which saw tens of thousands of private contractors deployed to war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. The big prize, management of Social Security's public trust fund, remains an active privatizing goal.

Art museums aren't in the same league. Still, the collateral damage has been severe. The most extreme example is the narrowly averted recent scheme to sell hundreds of millions of dollars in masterpieces from the Detroit Institute of Arts to settle Wall Street obligations in the wake of the city's bankruptcy filing.

What can be done about the spreading commercialization of art museums? As long as we confuse fatuous commerce with a vibrant civil life, probably not much. Museums are integral to our cultural infrastructure — highways to human happiness and bridges to communal knowledge — and America's crumbling infrastructure is already a low national priority.

For the foreseeable future, it seems, we are pretty much stuck with "If only."

Twitter: @KnightLAT

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