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boston mfa for sale

Post #208 • February 6, 2004, 8:42 AM • 8 Comments

A reader writes:

As I think you follow arts funding issues relatively closely, do you have an opinion on the Boston MFA "renting" its Monet pieces to that Las Vegas gallery? I don't see the problem. I can't envision what the possible detriment to the artistic community might be. I'm hoping you might have an insight I don't.

On the face of it, I didn't see a problem with this either. Instead of letting those paintings molder in the basement, the MFA lends them out to where people can see them, and makes some cash in the process. Of course, every time you move a work of art you put it at risk. But if Vegas people understand one thing, it's how to assess and minimize risk, right? And as an institution that handles huge sums of money in the middle of the desert, I imagine that the Bellagio has the security and climate control thing down better than some of our local museums.

Then I thought, wait a minute, the MFA is a public institution. Those are my paintings, and yours as well. Should the MFA be involved in profiteering off of public property?

It turns out that there's an Association of Art Museum Directors that publishes a set of guidelines that address the lending of art. Christopher Knight for the LA Times (via Modern Art Notes - oh, you want a link? Sorry, this is the LA Times):

"Professional Practices in Art Museums"... offers this guideline: "In any decision about a proposed loan from the collection, the intellectual merit and educational benefits, as well as the protection of the work of art, must be the primary considerations, rather than possible finanacial gain." ...

In three out of four criteria, the Monet show comes up short. MFA director Malcom Rogers airily waves away critics of the Vegas rental as "priggish." But the deal in fact makes hash of a judicious museum standard. The show is without intellectual merit, is educationally corrupt and puts a fast-buck premium on financial gain. ...

The sorry excuse for an exhibition catalog contributes zero knowledge to the field. A 52-page, $15 souveneir - which a store employee described to me over the phone as being "like a children's book" - it features a few vacant paragraphs of introduction and one glossy reproduction of each painting.

I wonder if the Association has any guidelines that distinguish fiscal responsibility from mere financial gain. I'm going with Knight on this one, but I sympathize with the enormous pressures that the museums are under to function in a businesslike way. The MFA is a special case, as well; director Malcolm Rogers tells Knight in the article that it is entirely privately funded. (Does that contradict Knight's assertion that the public owns those paintings? The MFA site does not describe its governance or funding mechanisms.) But the ultimate concern is not public versus private. Those guidelines are sensible, aimed at maximizing the lifetime of artwork and the immaterial benefits it can provide. To flout them does a disservice to both the present and future art-viewing public.



Tyler Green

February 6, 2004, 7:59 PM

"director Malcolm Rogers tells Knight in the article that it is entirely privately funded. (Does that contradict Knight's assertion that the public owns those paintings?"

Just about all private art museums are entirely privately funded. The only exceptions are museums like the Smithsonian or the RR museum in Sacramento. which I believe is state funded.

Museums do, however, receive massive tax breaks on property, income, assets, etc. because we (as a country through our tax laws) have decided that their educational and cultural mission is worth supporting. So they are accountable to us -- we all indirectly support them.



February 6, 2004, 8:08 PM

Once, I may have agreed with Knight as well. However, the romantic idea that Museums are not businesses should not be ignored. And yes they are non-profits, but non-profit does not mean non professional or non-business oriented. The fact is that money does not just miraculously fall out of the sky just because its art; museums rely on donations, and with serious human rights issues occurring in the world and here in America, museums many times are soliciting the same donors as the Red Cross and OxFam. Its not easy to compete with staving children and people dying of diseases with, oh and by the way, we really need to more money to help preserve our collection of paintings. I remember my first reaction to the Guggenheims motorcycle show was how could they do such a thing. Meanwhile, it was one of the highest attended exhibitions (the Creamaster toped it as the highest attended exhibition in the Guggenheims history) and thus affords the museum the ability to put on other more stimulating exhibitions, or having to downsize their staff.

As far as Knights criticism of the education factor involved in this exhibition, Im also skeptical. First of all, hes basing his criticism on second hand information; second, whether or not the educational materials are comprehensive, art exhibitions of the works of masters travel throughout the world (and thank God for it); third, we all know that art criticism should be taken with a grain of salt, so without having seen it for myself I will give the MFA Museum the benefit of the doubt.



February 6, 2004, 8:37 PM

The Boston MFA's move is clearly questionable. At the very least, it looks bad, and the MFA's cavalier response to the criticism has made the museum look worse. What they're really saying, whether intentionally or not, is that money talks (and Monet walks if the price is right).



February 7, 2004, 7:34 AM

you want a link? try this for more info:

though i don't know how long it will be free.



February 7, 2004, 9:20 AM

Maybe the Boston MFA should set up an advice line (for a fee, of course) for the ethically/morally wayward, based on the P-word. There's certainly a market for it:

Janet Jackson & Justin Timberlake: "So you flashed the whole country. Big deal. Call your critics priggish and ignore them."

Bill Clinton: "So you committed adultery and lied about it. Adultery is a natural stress reliever, and all politicians lie. Dismiss your accusers as priggish and blow them off."

Paris Hilton and company...Well, you get the idea.


Tyler Green

February 7, 2004, 4:43 PM

Click on my name: The Cremaster attendance myth is exposed!



February 8, 2004, 3:53 AM

I know that those of us in Vegas feel fortunate that we have the option of seeing a collection of Monets that we wouldn't otherwise.

Vegas has been taken to task for having such an arrangement between the BMFA and the Bellagio Gallery. That we are dependant of a for-profit gallery for a show of this quality is seen as a sign of cultural failing in the city.

But its nothing that we haven't been saying for years. The city's relative youth just hasn't given it the time to develop the arts institutions that older cities have. But much of the critiques on the show seem to take issue with Vegas existing at all. If Duchamp could enjoy a visit...

...I wish other art critics would just come to Vegas and come to their own opinion before passing judgment. Instead most just recycle the out-dated and incomplete impressions of the city.

Greg Crosby has another Vegas take on the show as well...



February 9, 2004, 10:28 PM

Franklin, I think those paintings are neither yours nor mine. They may well be my Bostonian sister's, however. Regardless of its sources of funding, the Boston MFA was created by an act of the Massachussetts legislature in 1870. I take it therefore to be a public institution of that state.

Mr Knight's commentary is foul-tempered and mean-spirited. I give it no credit. In the same issue of the LA Times, right next to Mr Knight's petty excoriation, his colleague Suzanne Muchnic describes the exhibit with complements.

The beautifully installed assembly of 21 paintings -- including trademark images of the cathedral at Rouen, waterlilies at Giverny and a grain stack at sunset -- surveys the artist's career from 1864 to 1905. With an illustrated catalog and a $15 admission fee that includes a recorded tour, the exhibition resembles a miniature museum retrospective.

I believe the Money exhibit -- uhh, I mean, the Monet exhibit -- does indeed meet Mr Knight's standard of educational benefit, intellectual merit, financial gain, and security protection. I'm happy to see more art displayed in front of more people, and I'm happy to see more success for artistic institutions. Mr Knight's hatred and jealousy do not move me.



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