Saltz: Money, Insularity, and a Huge Controversy for the New Museum

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Photo: Miolo’s flickr

The conflicts of interest between the New Museum and billionaire mega-collector Dakis Joannou have hit the fan. When it was announced in October that the New Museum would showcase Joannou’s famous collection of contemporary art — which includes stars like Maurizio Cattelan, Jeff Koons, Terence Koh, and Urs Fischer — that it would occupy three floors of the museum, and that it would be curated by none other than Mr. Koons (who has 40 works in Joannou’s collection), the art world cringed at the insiderness of it all. But people were also deeply intrigued and excited: Everyone has been hearing about this fabled collection for years. It was fervently hoped that the New Museum knew what it was doing getting this deep inside the belly of the market beast.

Museums have always depended on the kindness of collectors and shown their art. No biggie. As long as shows like this are done with transparency, there’s no problem. In this case, many didn’t like the facts as they were displayed. Bloggers, particularly Modern Art Notes’s Tyler Greene, harped on the lack of ethics, saying it was wrong for the New Museum to engage in this sort of exhibition at all. Then what might have seemed like whining turned serious.

An A1 New York Times story today dissecting the whole business cited a belief among critics that the museum now maintains “a dizzyingly insular circle of art world insiders.” In this case, the circle looks something like this: Joannou, a New Museum trustee, is friendly with Lisa Phillips, the museum’s director. Her curator, Massimiliano Gioni, has worked previously with Joannou, and he oversaw the current three-floor Urs Fischer show. Urs Fischer has curated shows for Joannou; Joannou also owns a good deal of Fischer’s work. Fischer’s art dealer is Gavin Brown, who also represents Elizabeth Peyton, Jeremy Deller, and Steven Shearer, all four of whom have had solo shows at the New Museum since it re-opened less than two years ago. I like that the art world isn’t regulated. I have seen Joannou’s collection and it is incredible. Still, when you add in Koons as the curator here the whole thing just breaks down. If only the museum would have either curated the collection itself or gotten someone else to do it ... (Right now at the UCLA Hammer Museum, artist Robert Gober has organized a show of visionary painter Charles Burchfield which is fantastic and totally untainted.)

It is a joke, by the way, to think that Joannou’s collection will increase in value after being shown here. If anything, using three floors of the New Museum will overexpose the art and decrease its value.

I love that we have an institution that is essentially saying, “Damn the rules. Other museums aren’t putting enough great contemporary art on view, so we’ll do it any way we can!” This important institution has grown with the times. It is thankfully not the New Museum of old. This is as it should be. I sorely want to defend the New Museum for making such a brazen move. Unfortunately, the museum may have outsmarted itself, and in an effort to eclipse other local institutions and fill a hole, it acted with hubris, leaving itself open to bitter complaints of dodgy, decadent soul-selling. I trust the New Museum. Sadly, it may now have a problem with its credibility. Earlier this year Phillips told Green, “In Dakis’ case ... challenge and experimentation have been part of his approach, which is similar to ours.” Regrettably, the art world now thinks that the “experimentation” the New Museum is engaging in is somewhat mad, and that the institution has been badly compromised. I hope this is untrue.