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Critic’s notebook: Private collections should stay in the living room — with their owner’s ego

Why do art museums present vanity exhibitions? Packing up paintings and sculptures from a private collector’s living room and hauling them over to the museum’s public galleries for a temporary display is about as low-grade a curatorial enterprise as can be imagined. The vision required is limited, if not nonexistent.

The visitor experience is rarely satisfying. At a vanity show, exploring an artist’s specific talents or a group of artists’ larger cultural meaning is secondary. Focus is shifted to the collector’s aptitude. The leading question viewers debate is simply: How skillful has this shopper been? Did he buy great things? Did he assemble them in interesting ways? What will become of the collection? Personal consumption becomes the primary issue.

Yet, for all their vapidness, private collection vanity exhibitions appear to be proliferating at America’s art museums. In the last two weeks, three have turned up at three major institutions.

On Saturday, the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens unveiled “Beauty and Power: Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes From the Peter Marino Collection” (Marino is a New York society decorator). Last week the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened its snazzy new Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion with “Eye for the Sensual: Selections From the Resnick Collection,” featuring a diverse array of the benefactors’ varied holdings — 18th century Rococo painting, 19th century British Neoclassical sculpture, early 20th century Art Deco furniture, etc.

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Two weeks earlier it was “Gray Collection: Seven Centuries of Art” at the Art Institute of Chicago. The show surveys international drawings owned by a local couple who run a prominent Modern art gallery.

Such presentations weaken art museums. Vanity shows undercut the distinctive reason the places exist.

The United States is unusual in having forged a vibrant nonprofit sector whose aim is different from the commercial and government sectors that other nations maintain. Business and government respond to majority will first; nonprofits were invented as an avenue for minority interests to flourish.

Last I looked, shopping was not a minority interest. Nonprofits, free of voters or stockholders, are meant to provide an alternative: New or untried ideas, even unpopular ones, might be knocked around.

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The government, knowing that new ideas don’t always fare well when instant popularity is a requirement, helps by removing the tax burden from museums. And tax breaks also go to businesses and individuals that chip in.

Some art museums, most notably the Museum of Modern Art, have a written policy that forbids showing private collections. But others make vanity shows a regular feature.

Perhaps the nation’s most active vanity venue is the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where no fewer than seven have been displayed since 2007. But LACMA has turned over its galleries to single private collections many times: Hammer, Smooke, Broad and now Resnick (all museum trustees). Two seasons ago, actor Cheech Marin’s Chicano art collection was also shown.

Sometimes these shows raise a ruckus.

A big one came in 1999, when the Brooklyn Museum showed the contemporary collection held by British advertising magnate Charles Saatchi, who helped put Margaret Thatcher into the prime minister’s job 20 years before. Saatchi also acted as the show’s curator and major funder, raising questions of conflict of interest. Why was a nonprofit art museum subsidizing the activities of a wealthy private individual — especially one whose controversial habit of buying and selling recent art was well known?

Last spring a noisy storm swirled around the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, where selections from a European trustee’s collection of recent blue-chip art filled the galleries. Eyebrows also rose in Boston in 2005 with successive exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, the first a show of 16 classic cars owned by fashion designer Ralph Lauren, the second a heterogeneous array — marine paintings, wine bottles, guns, classical sculpture, early Modern paintings, even a couple of sailing yachts moored on the museum’s front lawn — owned by honorary trustee William I. Koch. Like Saatchi, Koch helped underwrite his show.

Those dust-ups can generate withering publicity for their institutions. A Boston Globe critic dismissed the Koch collection show, titled “Things I Love,” as “narcissistic,” “smug and even insulting.” Yachts on the art museum lawn drew plenty of controversial media attention.

Of course, most coverage spelled the museum’s name right, which seemed to be the goal. But publicity can boomerang, as Brooklyn found out when then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani tried to shut down the suddenly high-profile museum because he disliked a painting in the show.

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The Globe review also described the Koch event as “a big, sycophantic bouquet presented to the multimillionaire collector” by the MFAB director, who was in the midst of a $500-million capital campaign. (A new wing opens next month.) Vanity shows often appear to be trolling for gifts — art donations or money — from wealthy benefactors. Stroking the private collector’s ego might open, or at least loosen, the checkbook.

Does it? Results are certainly mixed. The Resnicks, to cite a current example, have certainly been generous to LACMA. They rank among the largest donors in the museum’s 45-year history. But vanity shows also reinforce a negative perception that art museums are just playthings for the rich and well-connected.

Indeed, financial impact is the most often stated — and overstated — complaint about vanity shows. That likely stems from an infamous 1973 episode at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where “Candid Camera” creator Allen Funt was invited to show his collection of sentimental Victorian paintings.

The British critic John Ruskin had derided Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1839-1912) as the19th century’s worst painter, saying of his decadent, candy-colored Roman epics: "[The] general effect is exactly like a microscopic view of a small detachment of black beetles in search of a dead rat.” In the1960s the artist’s critical standing remained low, even as reassessments of Victorian art began to stir. Funt bought his paintings in bulk for small sums.

Six months after his Met show came down, Funt dispatched 35 newly sanctified Alma-Tadema paintings to Sotheby’s auction house. Many were knocked down for prices 50 and 60 times what he had paid for them. The scandal embarrassed a lot of people.

Similar murmurings about inflating or shoring up prices were heard at Brooklyn’s Saatchi show and, last spring, at the New Museum’s questionable display of Greek tycoon Dakis Joannou’s contemporary collection. But, finally, investment talk is just another discouraging angle on the tired shopping obsession.

It also forgets that today’s roaring art market dwarfs any in living memory. The so-called “museum imprimatur” bestowed by a vanity show is now just a butterfly fluttering around a giant international investment pool. Nice to have, but finally not so important.

Conventional wisdom says that at least 90% of the art in museums’ permanent collections was gifted by private individuals. Marino’s plans for his bronzes are unknown. The Resnicks have expressed their intention to donate important works to LACMA, where Lynda is a trustee, and to the Getty, where Stewart is. In Chicago, the Art Institute has made a point of noting that Richard and Mary Lackritz Gray have similar goals for their drawings.

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LACMA used to say the same thing about Occidental Petroleum chief Armand Hammer whenever he had a vanity show there — until he changed his mind one day and opened his own vanity museum in Westwood. Still, the Resnicks and Grays might well follow through on their honest intentions. When they do, that’s the moment for an exhibition.

No longer a vanity show, it’s instead an essential study of a civic art museum’s shared cultural legacy. The critical role private collectors have played in shaping it makes sense.

Why do vanity shows seem to be multiplying? Is it because of the tanked economy? Is it the need, following a lengthy period of museum building-expansion, for easy space-fillers?

Is it “trickle-down aesthetics”? At the inevitable peak (or nadir) of a 30-year political cycle, which began with Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential election, powerful interests have championed taking everything private, including Social Security, aspects of the military, schools, public parks, etc.

That’s also what a vanity show is — the private assumption of an art museum’s public-spirited curatorial role. It’s one thing for a scholar at the Metropolitan Museum to urge reconsidering Alma-Tadema’s reviled paintings, searching out the best examples wherever they might be to make his hitherto unpopular art-historical case. It’s quite another to simply empty out Allen Funt’s apartment across town.

It’s true that vanity shows give the public access to art they might not otherwise have a chance to see. But individual long-term loans to a museum collection accomplish the same goal. (Several of the Resnicks’ best works, displayed in the context of other 18th century art, have already been seen by Getty visitors.) Besides, if the current vanity displays weren’t on view, the museums’ temporary exhibition galleries would not stand empty. They’d just be filled with other, equally worthwhile works, assembled for shows also composed of art the public otherwise would not ordinarily have a chance to see.

Ultimately the trade-off is costly. Museums have enough problems without appearing to be exclusive clubs fueled by noblesse oblige and dependent on indulging voyeuristic shopping fantasies. More should follow MOMA’s lead and adopt written policies that discourage vanity exhibitions.

Just as a practical matter, it would be helpful to have such a policy in the director’s top desk-drawer for the occasion when a vexing suggestion came forward to mount a rare and discriminating exhibition of Worthington P. Trustee’s massive gilded doorknob collection — or even Bigfoot J. Billionaire’s horde of world-class masterpieces: “I’m so sorry, our ironclad museum policy does not allow it. But we’d love to permanently enshrine an outstanding gift.”

christopher.knight@latimes.com


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