The Imperfect Pursuit of Collections


New York's fall auction season will open tonight with a mega-sale of modern art from the estate of Los Angeles collectors Nathan and Marion Smooke--and a burning question.

Why are these artworks going on the block?

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art put considerable effort and resources into staging a major exhibition of the Smooke collection and publishing a catalog on it in 1987. Nathan Smooke, an industrial real estate developer, served on the museum's board of trustees until his death in 1991. One of his three sons, Los Angeles attorney Michael Smooke, succeeded him on the board and is still a LACMA trustee. All of which had led to hopes, if not expectations, that the collection would end up at the Wilshire Boulevard institution. But after Marion Smooke's death, in March, art merchants came calling.

The deep-pocketed Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg auction house snagged the Smooke collection with a hefty guarantee. Phillips will only say that the sale "is expected to exceed $100 million," but sources close to the deal peg the guarantee at somewhere between $180 million and $200 million.

That kind of money may largely explain why the Smookes' heirs are not giving away the collection. But the sale also raises vexing questions about policies and practices regarding exhibitions of private collections at public museums, an area fraught with conflicts of interest.

Charged with building collections but rarely endowed with sufficient acquisition funds, museums cultivate relationships with collectors and solicit their support. Collectors, in turn, seek professional advice from museum curators, and crave the scholarly prestige and validation that museums offer. When the courtship is sealed with a major exhibition of the collection, some sort of marriage is expected to follow.

But if a commitment isn't made before the exhibition, the collector is likely to keep the artworks, move on to another suitor or cash in--with the museum's imprimatur. Left in the lurch, the museum may be criticized both for failing to land the collection and for wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars on a show calculated to flatter the collector.

These issues blow up from time to time all across the country. The specter of a private collector using a public museum loomed particularly large at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999, when it presented "Sensation." The museum was only looking for a box-office hit, not donated artworks, when it booked the show of cutting-edge contemporary art from the collection of British advertising executive Charles Saatchi. But a flap over threatened censorship escalated into a broader ethical controversy when it was revealed that Saatchi had been given curatorial control of the show. Making matters worse, Saatchi's activity in the marketplace and Christie's sponsorship of the show led to fears that the artworks would go on the block at prices inflated by the exhibition.

So far, that hasn't happened, but there is still no universal art-museum policy about exhibiting private collections.

Even as the Smookes' Matisses, Degases, Brancusis, Picassos, Legers, Modiglianis and Giacomettis await their fate in New York, LACMA is presenting a large exhibition of contemporary art from the holdings of another trustee, Eli Broad, and his wife, Edythe. Like the Smookes, the Broads have not given or promised their collections to LACMA. To longtime museum watchers, "Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art From the Broad Collections" is all too reminiscent of "Degas to Picasso: Modern Masters From the Smooke Collection," presented in 1987.

Andrea Rich, who became president of LACMA in 1995 and assumed the directorship as well in 1999, defends the practice of showing private collections--but only under certain conditions. The quality of the art must measure up to the museum's standards, she said. The collector must be "a member of the museum's extended family" who has contributed artworks or financial support, and the museum must have complete curatorial control of the exhibition and catalog. If those criteria are met, private collections can help the museum fulfill one of its roles, which is "to make available to the public things they might not see were it not for the exhibition," she said.

Providing a public forum is also "a way the museum might express its desire in the long run to be the permanent home and shepherd of the collection," she said. "It's one of the mechanisms by which museums get great collections, by building these relationships." Planning exhibitions and negotiating gifts are entirely separate matters at LACMA, she insists.

With the Smookes, "there was more hope than talk" that their collection would end up there, said Earl A. Powell III, who led the museum from 1980 to 1992 and now directs the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. "We showed the collection, and out of that came their commitment to give two or three things. It was one of those situations where you put your best feet forward and hope that other things will eventually come, but there was never any understanding about the entire collection, either informal or formal."

Michael Smooke said his parents left no instructions about the disposition of the collection. In deciding how to handle it, he and his brothers "considered all kinds of different things," he said. "We had a lot of issues and questions that we had to take into account, not the least of which was estate taxes." Seventy-one individual artworks and a group of four small bronzes by Honore Daumier are in the auction. The family has retained "something less than 10% of the collection," he said.

LACMA credits the Smooke family with outright gifts or contributions toward the purchase of 10 artworks since 1978. They include a bronze head by Picasso, a portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire by Maurice Vlaminck and a stainless steel, kinetic sculpture by George Rickey. Nathan and Marion Smooke also gave an undisclosed sum to the campaign for the museum's Anderson Building, where their collection was shown.

The Broads are also longtime supporters of the museum. They have given 13 contemporary artworks to LACMA since 1977, including "Oelgemaelde, Hommage a Marcel Broodthaers," a large installation in the current exhibition. Eli Broad says he will eventually give his collection to one or more museums, but he is not ready to make a commitment yet. However, Broad has declared his intention to be "a big financial supporter" of the major redesign that LACMA is planning.

"All of these things come together," Rich said of Broad's multifaceted involvement with the museum, "but there are no quid pro quos in any of this."

Therein lies one potential problem. Although many American museums have been founded or greatly enriched by donations of private collections, the annals of museum history are spiced with tales of wily, egocentric characters who shop their collections around or walk out of long-term relationships and establish their own museums.

When LACMA opened in 1965, nearly half the most valuable works on view--and almost all that pleased the critics--belonged to Norton Simon. He was closely allied with the museum for many years but eventually formed his own showcase in Pasadena.

Unlike Simon, who never promised his collection to the museum, Armand Hammer made public pronouncements of his intention to donate a big chunk of his holdings to LACMA . He pulled out when the museum balked at his ever-escalating demands and built his own museum in Westwood that is now operated by UCLA.

This is not a Southern California phenomenon. Texas real estate developer Raymond Nasher amassed a huge collection of 20th century sculpture that seemed to be destined for the Dallas Museum of Art, but he recently built his own sculpture garden in Dallas--after a round of major exhibitions of the collection at the Dallas institution, the National Gallery of Art, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Each courtship involves a unique set of circumstances and personalities, and there are no hard and fast rules for dealing with them. The American Assn. of Museums' new ethical guidelines on exhibiting borrowed objects state that museums must be true to their missions and avoid conflicts of interest, but they do not prohibit or detail conditions for exhibitions of private collections. Similarly, the Assn. of Art Museum Directors' recently revised publication, "Professional Practices in Art Museums," states that "considerations of artistic quality and educational excellence rather than financial gain should drive a museum's public programs," but it does not deal with specific issues concerning private collections.

"I have been struck by the fact that there is so little uniformity," said Jeremy Strick, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, which toes an unusually tight line with collectors. "It has always been MOCA's policy to only show private collections that have been given to the museum, promised to the museum or from which there is a very substantial gift," he said. "Many of the museum's founders were collectors, but they felt it was imperative to emphasize the public purpose of the museum and not to link it to the interests of collectors." Eli Broad was among the core group of collector-founders, but he rotated off MOCA's board several years ago and became a trustee at LACMA.

Founded 23 years ago, MOCA has been enormously successful in building an internationally renowned collection through purchases and gifts. "At the very least, our policy on exhibitions has not hindered our acquisitions," Strick said, "and I think some would argue that the policy of its founders has helped us in working with collectors and securing incredibly generous donations. We can point to a very clear tradition, and I think people really respect that and respond to it."

But museums that have "different traditions and relationships with their communities" often "have good reasons for pursuing different policies," he said.

And they do. The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art have policies that correspond to MOCA's. At the National Gallery, private collections are shown "with the understanding that some kind of commitment is going to be made for certain works of art," director Powell said. "We don't have a policy that everything exhibited has to come, but there's a form of quid pro quo."

These museums are in the minority, however. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art staged a large exhibition of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson's collection last year, with no strings attached. (The Andersons recently donated their 19th work of art to the museum, a major early painting by Frank Stella.) The Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego launched an international touring show of Los Angeles television writer Tom Patchett's collection in 1998; 14 works in the show will be offered for sale at Phillips on Nov. 12 and 13. None has been donated to San Diego.

"You have to be realistic," said Harry S. Parker III, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. "The stronger the museum, the more likely it is able to demand a donor commitment before entering into an agreement to exhibit a private collection."

That logic isn't always borne out by practice. The mighty Metropolitan Museum of Art does not require donations of art in return for exhibitions. Showing private collections "gives audiences an opportunity to see things they just wouldn't see otherwise, so there is a service element that we feel strongly about," said Harold Holzer, vice president for communications.

At the Cleveland Museum of Art, acquiring large groups of artworks is not the point, said director Katharine Lee Reid. "Cleveland only has 40,000 things in its collection, and yet it is compared with institutions that have huge collections, including the Met, which has almost 1 million objects. I think of our collection as an executive summary of much larger places. One of the reasons we have this lean and wonderful collection is that we haven't gone after whole collections. We have cherry-picked; we've tried to get individual works that add to the architecture of the whole."

But exhibitions of certain private collections are welcome in Cleveland. If the works were acquired by "a person of reputation, with a demonstrated achievement as a collector, they are interesting as a presentation of private taste," Reid said. "It's all within our mission of educating about art."

Leaders of many other museums concur. But others claim to find the entire debate mystifying.

"I don't get it," said Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. "One of the jobs of museums is to encourage collecting. I don't see how you do that unless you let the general public see what people are collecting."

Showing private collections is "just an extension of the museum's mission, and that is to share the riches of a civilization with the broadest audience possible," he said. "If the private collection or work meets your standards and your programming needs, you show it. Very often you do that in the hope that you get it, but you wouldn't want it for the collection unless it was great and if it's good enough for you to want, it must be good enough to show it."

As for the Smookes, "it's their collection," Reid said. "I just wish they would give something to Cleveland."

At LACMA, there's still a chance of receiving something--after the auction.

"The family has a great deal of love for the museum," Michael Smooke said. "My parents were very generous to the museum during their lifetimes. It's something my brothers and I will continue. We certainly do intend to remember our parents with the museum." Future gifts are "under discussion," he said.

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