Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Conflict of Interest in Art Show?

The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York will host a show in March of art from the private collection of one of its trustees, Dakis Joannou.  Mr. Joannou has become known as one of the most important collectors of modern art.  He owns 40 works by Jeff Koons, and many of those works will be included in the show.  Mr. Koons, now a good friend of Mr. Joannou, will curate the show.  The announcement of the show has drawn criticism from those concerned about "the propriety of turning over a public museum to a private collector who also happens to be a museum trustee and a chief patron of the curator."  The choice of Mr. Koons as curator has also raised questions.  A story in the New York Times describes the controversy, in which prominent members of the art world have taken sides.

As I read the article, I wondered where the conflict was.  Giving the public a chance to view works of art held in a private collection seems like a good idea to me.  However, as someone who does not collect art, I had not realized that a museum showing of a private collection will increase the value of those pieces of art.  The value of a museum show is of particular importance for modern art, because a show indicates that the pieces are considered "museum worthy."  So Mr. Joannou's collection will likely increase in value as the result of the show.  There is no indication that he plans to sell any of the art anytime soon, but if he does sell some pieces at some point, he may benefit financially from the show. The museum has said that Mr. Joannou is aware of their policy of not exhibiting art that the owner intends to sell.

Some critics have also expressed concern that the museum's independent judgment may be compromised. A museum should be "an independent arbiter of taste and art-historical value" commented Noah Kupferman, who teaches a course called "Fine Art as a Financial Asset" at NYU.  "It is not supposed to surrender itself to a trustee and donor whose collection stands to be enhanced in value by a major museum show."  

Others from the art world have supported the show.  Several museum directors caution against making judgments too quickly about what the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art described as "'the delicate dance' between museums and collectors."  And others, including the director of the Guggenheim have applauded the show.

In my view, the benefits of this show outweigh the conflicts.  It sounds like these works of art, described by the international co-head for post-war and contemporary art at Christie's as a "fantastic collection," will be of great interest to lovers of modern art.  I'm guessing that some of those complaining about the show won't miss the chance to see the art.


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