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Saltz on Defending the New Museum

We’re all entitled to opinions about how art institutions should behave, and entitled to voicing those opinions through whatever means available to us. We’re also allowed to change or modify our opinions. That’s what I did last week when an editor for this magazine asked me to expand, in print, on my Vulture blog post concerning the tempest around the New Museum’s planned March exhibition of the collection of one of its trustees, Dakis Joannou. (Some have said that the show presents a conflict of interest.)

The more I thought about the issue, the less black-and-white it seemed. In addition, the outrage and moralizing around it started to seem over the top. Museums are not halls of purity. Collectors and dealers — and successful artists — are not by definition more corrupt or less capable of independent thought than any of the rest of us. The New Museum doesn’t even collect, which means the show is not an attempt to land Joannou’s collection. It is also extremely questionable to say that showing art in a museum increases its value. Has the value of Damien Hirst’s “Shark” risen a cent for being at the Met, as an editorial in the New York Times worried? No one even seems to know it’s there. (Dakis Joannou did not defray any of the show's costs, or increase his contribution to the museum as a trustee.)

One of the main things that suggested all this indignation had gone too far was the witch-hunt tone of an editorial in the November issue of the Art Newspaper. The language in the piece — written by art blogger Tyler Green and published at the end of last week — was scolding, scornful, condescending, and smug, tinged with a verbal violence that was a little scary. The editorial begins with the false charge that private collector exhibitions are “fluff shows.” Green sniffs that he’s “especially disappointed” in the New Museum, and finishes by beseeching all museums to “cancel” exhibitions of private collections. He demands that the Association of Art Museums Association of Art Museum Directors “ban” these shows because they are “an insult” to the art world. When I hear a word like “ban,” I reach for my dictionary and review the definition of the word democracy.

This kind of apparatchik rule-making feels off to me. Green has gotten into the habit of demanding that people be fired, reprimanded, or punished, as if only he knows right from wrong. He may have hastened Grace Glueck's departure from the Times after citing a “conflict of interest.” After Village Voice art critic Christian Viveros-Faune talked about his dual roles as a critic and an employee of an art fair, Green accused him of indulging “a textbook case of unethical conflict-of-interest” that struck “at the very heart of ... integrity” and “flouted journalistic norms.” Green sneered that he was “troubled” by this behavior and publicly asked the Voice to “stop publishing” Viveros-Faune. Guess what? That’s exactly what happened. The Voice and the art world lost a tremendous voice.

Last year, after The New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl and I spoke at an Obama event hosted at the Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery, Green blogged that we were wrong for “participating in a political event with someone [we’re] charged with covering.” He said our “ethics should be guided by the rules of the journalism world, not the flimsy, who’s-your-buddy ethic of the art world.” “This is not quite Christian Viveros-Faune … territory,” he concluded, but warned that “journalists should not be partnering with people they're supposed to be covering.” I wanted to let him know that I was scheduled to speak at another gallery — this time for a breast-cancer event.

The New Museum is not Marcia Tucker’s museum anymore, nor should it be. A lot of people are disappointed with the path it has taken, which may indicate the extent to which it appeared to be New York’s last, best hope for exciting, outside-the-box exhibitions. It definitely has issues. It is too insular and too cozy with certain galleries. That should change. But we don’t have to burn the place down. At a certain point, the hatred seems unrelated to the offense. It is just people reveling in nay-saying and name-calling without examining the motivations for their behavior — and believe me, I know whereof I speak.

I know it’s dangerous to take on bloggers. They can go after you every day, all day long, and anonymous people can chime in, too. Already this week Green has branded me an “up-with-art cheerleader,” chortled “balderdash” at something I wrote, and is now even writing comments on my Facebook page and publishing other of my Facebook comments on his public blog. Still, come what may, I’m tired of the hate fest.

Update: Green clarified one of his positions in a November 13 blog post, writing that "very small museums with limited or no curatorial staffs" should be allowed single-collector shows.

Editor's note: The sentence concerning Grace Glueck's departure from the Times has been updated to reflect that she was not, in fact, fired.

Photo: Miolo’s flickr