In Terms Of

Dubious Relations

The Relationship between Artists and Museums
Late 1986
Kouros Gallery, New York

Learning that John Bernard Myers, founder and former principal of Tibor de Nagy Gallery, had organized a panel discussion about relations between artists and museums—a topic of major significance in the art universe—and hoping, not necessarily for a revelation, but perhaps for some pointed commentary, we sent a reporter to the event. She was only faintly amused.

Speakers: David Bourdon, Richard Hennessy, Diane Kelder, Barbara Rose, and Marcia Tucker

The symposium on “The Relationships between Artists and Museums” was a formal display of sparring and volleying between five panelists, some of whom raised genuine questions. A few presented themselves as ideologues. Only the final speaker attempted answers.

A stiff academic history of the relationship between museums and artists by Diane Kelder, who quoted Goethe and claimed that Italy destroyed classicism, opened the event. Commencing an extrapolation of the didactic role of museums, Kelder lost her place (she was reading) and quickly closed, just damning the Whitney Museum’s conspicuous relations with corporations and the Morgan Library’s allowing Mobil Oil to sponsor Holbein exhibitions.

David Bourdon then addressed the overflow audience (mostly of women, mostly of stern and angry visage) and asked a crucial question. Do museums cause people to be artists? And, if so, how bad is the damage? His thesis was that because artists now have easy access to museum exhibitions, relations are casual. He also pointed out that some kind of money has to support the showcases of art. Large corporations, because of governmental tax structures, are logical sponsors. Of course, Bourdon allowed, there is an opinion behind the money, and the corporations want their tastes validated. And, since corporations are innately materialistic, greedy, and commercial, they will not readily accept difficult or controversial artists.

Barbara Rose floundered on the question of how an artist achieves visibility. By means of “museum patronage,” she decided, then discussed the moral obligations of art-world powers. Museums should not be in the business of certifying artists but should remain neutral, she said, then wrapped her argument into a dead end by repeating the cultural myth that artists are by nature introverted and melancholy (oh Vincent, lend us your ear!) and the belief that corporate backing of museum shows is so narrow and aggressive that most great talents would be passed over in any event.

After that black vision, Richard Hennessy, in the supporting role of token artist, explained with great flair that the first thing he did upon arriving in New York was to go to the Museum of Modern Art and that made him an artist. A successful artist, albeit hand-made by museum endorsement, he thought it was OK to be in league with the power structure of, behind, and around museums. This seemed a naïve and self-indulgent viewpoint, both compromised and trusting. It reminded me of farmers in the Midwest who endorse Ronald Reagan, while his direct influence is bringing about their economic demise.

However, Marcia Tucker was on the mark, advocating ways of manipulating corrupt museum power into a more positive result. “Of course there’s corruption. Of course museums favor dead artists like Holbein who provide a predictable, finite career. Of course corporations control museums and museums control aesthetic visibility.” But, Tucker added, there are working solutions that could benefit artist, corporation, and museum. She suggested that museums should have a variety of curatorial standards to expand the tunnel vision of corporate influence, and curators should speak without lying. Meanwhile, she maintains that museums and collectors can engage in truthful discussion of ideas and involve corporations without losing their integrity.

Panelists then wrestled with the obvious questions, managing, finally, a ray of hope and optimism.

In Terms Of count: unknown.

Written by Cathy Blackwell, “Dubious Relations” was originally published in Women Artists News 12, no. 1 (February/March 1987); and reprinted in Judy Seigel, ed., Mutiny and the Mainstream: Talk That Changed Art, 1975–1990 (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1992), 263. In Terms Of thanks Midmarch Arts Press for permission to republish this review.

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