Sunday, June 13, 2021

The Packaged Exhibition

I presume all those who bother to read my Missives have gone to special exhibitions at art museums, but have you thought about how they came about?

Often, they are exhibitions brought together from the museums own holdings, possibly a newly acquired work or collection that the museum wishes to feature.

Then there are the shows that are put together from scratch where a single curator or a group of curators or the Director come up with an idea and with the permission of the Director, they scour museums here and abroad in order to find the works that cover their desired theme. The next question is will they be able to get the works lent? They generally seek partner venues to share the expenses.

Today, however, I wish to speak of the packaged or traveling exhibition. This show was not organized by the exhibiting institution but by another entity. There are a few companies that still put exhibitions together and offer them for a rental fee to smaller institutions lacking the resources to originate shows.

Larger institutions wish to show off their collection and put it on the road. This can be a considerable source of income as well as bragging rights, earning publicity for the institution. A prime example is The Barnes Collection founded in 1922, and when it realized its declining finances in the 1990’s began a world tour charging huge rental fees to create an endowment while controversy raged over its eventual disposition.

The Barnes Collection

More recently the wildly popular Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernists exhibition from the Gelman Collection in Mexico City arrived at the Albuquerque Art Museum after having been on the road for many years. An exhibition with such popular artists is a boon to the venue bringing in an increased number of visitors. However, funds must be raised in advance as additional ticketing income rarely covers the costs of an exhibition fee plus considerable expenses in relation to shipping, insurance, installation, publicity and staff time.

Diego and Frida

What does the curator on the receiving end do before all the objects arrive? Here is where the creativity comes in. The curator will work with a designer to make the works fit to best advantage in the venue space and convey to visitors the point of the show.

The curator may choose to organize the works chronologically so that the visitor can see a timeline and see how styles might change. Artists develop over time and their styles change along with the years. The curator might also like the idea of comparison for instance taking works from the French Royal Porcelain Factory of S«evres with the German Royal factory of Meissen. The former would be in soft paste porcelain where the color melts into the material and the latter in hard paste where the color stands on top of the ceramic. These would also speak to the sensibility of their time and place. The venue curator can also write label copy to bring home their interpretation to their audience.



Another possibility is to add to the exhibition. Museums may agree to partner on an exhibition because they have related works in their permanent collection. That not only enriches the visitor experience but shows off and validates the museum collection. It might also be an opportunity to bring in related loans. The Albuquerque Museum decided to add photographs of Kahlo and Rivera to show with the paintings and drawings from the Gelman collection and did a complimentary exhibit of prints as well.

This is only a marginal gloss on a subject to which a number of books could be written. Each exhibition has its own issues. Although curators have to work with what they are given, viewing the same exhibition in more than one museum reveals the significance of the role of the curator at each venue.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Donating to a Museum

Donating art is not as simple as you think, and it can get downright difficult. What do you wish to donate? Oh, the painting your grandmother made on her vacation in Europe. If your grandmother was not a known artist, do you think that anyone aside from you or your parents would want to come to see it? 

Let’s say, however, you have a French 18th century painting by a famous artist such as Fragonard, obviously neither the Crystal Bridges Museum nor the Amon Carter would be interested as they collect only American Art. My point being you need to find an institution where it would enhance their collection and one that does not already have ten superior examples in order to have your donation accepted by the institution.

Well, finally you do find such a museum in, shall we say, Nowheresville, USA. In fact, it is the National Museum of Nowheresville, and this is just what they were looking for. What happens, however, if a billionaire from Nowheresville subsequently leaves a bequest of ten Fragonards and sadly your picture becomes inferior and redundant. Do you care that the picture that has come down through your family for three generations is going to be put on the auction block? All will see that the painting your grandparents treasured is being rejected from where you hoped it would reside in perpetuity. Why didn’t you think of donating your painting with the stipulation that it could not be sold? Works of art have been donated in that manner by a number of collectors, but increasingly museums negotiate an agreement to keep the work in the collection for a certain number of years. Don’t forget to discuss whether you wish your art work’s label to say, “Given by with your name” or “Given by you in honor of your grandmother.”

Congratulations, your painting was accepted under your conditions but what you cannot do, is guarantee that it will always be on exhibition, and it may very well be put in storage. You probably can request that the picture be up for a certain amount of time after the donation but that is probably all you can guarantee. If, however, you are giving a Leonardo da Vinci or a whole collection that you want shown together then you will have greater leverage in your negotiations. This was the case with the Jack and Belle Linsky collection of Old Master paintings and European decorative arts donated to the Metropolitan Museum 1982 on condition that it be permanently shown together in a series of dedicated galleries. Fortunately, there was no prohibition on changes in attribution as the centerpiece of the Linsky Galleries, the famed Rospigliosi cup, was eventually downgraded from a Renaissance masterpiece by Benvernuto Cellini to a copy by the 19th century goldsmith Reinhold Vasters. It is now labelled as such, though it still occupies its position of honor.

These issues can get so complicated that you may very well require a lawyer, not to mention an accountant but I will come to that in a moment. You are effectively drawing up a contract with the museum which has financial consequences … or you may not care and just sign the papers the institution gives you.

If you don’t live anywhere near Nowheresville, I hope you remembered to discuss with the museum as to who is paying for packing, shipping and insurance in transit. The museum registrar usually makes the arrangements, but it may be left to you.

Hopefully, the negotiations go smoothly and both sides are pleased with the result. If it is a valuable work of art, however, you will probably want the tax deduction that goes with its donation. Once upon a time, you could pretty much claim any reasonable value and it would be accepted. However, after too many donors took advantage of this ability, the IRS started to require professionals who had to get a degree as appraisers to write an extensive report with details of how they came to their conclusions. This includes the condition, history of the work, publications it might have appeared in as well as corroborating auction sale records, art dealer sales and any other backup they can supply. As you can imagine this time-consuming service is not inexpensive and the donor must pay the cost. This is the actual tax form the appraiser must also submit.

I have not gone too far into the weeds here and I am sure I have left out many permutations of gift giving. As usual just trying to get my readers to think about the ramifications and results of a situation. Also, I am certainly not trying to discourage making contributions to our cultural institutions but only wish to show that it takes some forethought before doing so.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

A Park on the Water

It is amazing how a project can allude you until it is actually realized. In this case it is in my hometown, New York ... a park has been built in the Hudson River ... yes, actually in the river!

When I was young in the 50’s I went to Europe by ship and we left and docked at the West Side Piers on the Hudson River. There were always people on the dock waiving with handkerchiefs either good-byes or welcoming friends and family. Of course, from the 60’s on I flew and never thought about what happened to those unused piers.

For the past two decades there have been various projects to revitalize this neglected part of Manhattan Island with recreational sites under the auspices of the Hudson River Park Trust.

Little Island, however, is different. It was conceived in 2014 to replace Pier 54 on Manhattans’ West Side near 13th Street. Typical of such a venture the estimated cost of $35 million skyrocketed to $260 million. The project was funded by Barry Diller former CEO of 20th Century Fox and his wife, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, two marquee names. Of course, no good deed goes unpunished and as so often happens a mega real estate individual threw several legal challenges in its path. Diller, disgusted with the delay, and probably the lack of appreciation for his efforts, bowed out. Enter the Governor of New York, Andrew M. Cuomo, who brokered a deal between the billionaires so the project could move forward.

The island was designed by Thomas Heatherwick who has done another project on the Hudson. Let him spend 2 minutes telling you about the Little Island project.

The approximately two-and-a-half-acre plot stands out among all the rest because it has been built on what are known as “tulip pots”, pilings of different heights so the paths of the park can wind around hills. Michael Kimmelman wrote in the New York Times, it is, “in the theatrical vein of 18th century English garden follies – not least because Little Island can remind you more of a private estate than a city park.”

To reach most islands you need a floating craft of some sort but to reach Little Island you can take one of two footbridges.

The plantings trees, flowers and grass are clearly outstanding and there is an outdoor amphitheater that seats 687 with sunset views as well as a smaller space for more intimate performances. There is also plenty to entertain the kids. Considering what a draw this new space will be there will be timed reservations required from ages 3 and up, which can be made 4 weeks in advance. If you booked tickets for a performance, you can spend the day at the park. The park will only be closed for 5 hours a day 
meaning that it is open from 6am to 1am!

For the next twenty years Diller has committed his family foundation to paying to keep Little Island in the same shape as it is in its opening this month. Hopefully, the city will find the funding to maintain it long after that. It is certainly a destination I look forward to visiting.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Has Political Correctness Gone Too Far?

In response to my Missive “Ethics and Philanthropy" ...

A friend wrote, “At what stage of infamy do you reject gifts? If made anonymously, that is that you will not be celebrating the donor with a name on a wall or some such, would that make a difference?”

The dictionary definition of Political Correctness is, “the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”

From that definition I believe it has been taken to an extreme. Why? If we try to make up for lost time by making sure our Boards of Directors are diverse and our museums have a serious selection of art from formerly ignored other cultures and we continue to make up for our errors of the past these actions are positive. But we should not collect trustees, artists or any other category just because they are of another culture, they need to be qualified otherwise we have defeated the purpose of diversity, and all will be ill served. It also makes no sense to me to eliminate history in the process for then we will just have dismissed the past and not stood up to it.

I recently read the following in a notice from a Bard Graduate Center Bulletin: “Jonathan Michael Square will present his research on Brooks Brothers’ connections to slavery. Brooks Brothers was founded in 1818 and, in the first few decades of its operation, provided merchandise to elite gentlemen as well as livery for their domestics. Some of those domestics were enslaved people. In this talk, Square will use two Brooks Brothers coats worn by enslaved men as a point of departure to explore the history of this “heritage” brand.” Are we now trying to denigrate the men’s store that went into bankruptcy a few years ago? To what purpose?

I sent the Bard announcement to a female friend abroad who replied, “This really takes the cake. I mean, REALLY! Will they, then, blame shoemakers who shod the “enslaved persons”? And right down the line? Passemanterie makers who produced the braid on their liveries? Brooks Bros. also made Abraham Lincoln’s clothes (and the Kennedys’, and Andy Warhol, et al. and some Northern Civil War generals. Every man in my life swore by Brooks Bros., even if none dressed exclusively there.

I guess I will never get my name on a gallery because I bought my underwear, pajamas and suits from them for many years. Originally, on the advice (insistence) from my ex-mother-in-law!

A positive side of Political Correctness was recently demonstrated by the Metropolitan Museum in recognition of a lost fact of history they announced: “Met Installs Plaque Honoring Lenape People – The Metropolitan Museum of Art has installed a bronze plaque on its Fifth Avenue facade to honor and recognize the Lenape, the Indigenous people who owned the land on which the museum sits. Recognizing that it is in the homeland of the Lenape diaspora, Lenapehoking, it reads: “We respectfully acknowledge and honor all Indigenous communities—past, present, and future—for their ongoing and fundamental relationships to the region."

“The Lenape tribe is known for their Native American beadwork and basketry products. Like other eastern Native Americans, the Leni Lenape also crafted wampum out of white and purple shell beads. This beadwork was originally culturally important as adornment, but it became used as a means of trade with Europeans.”

“Wampum beads were traded as a kind of currency.” Does that sound familiar? Bitcoin, a few hundred years later?

Hope I have left you thinking!

Sunday, May 16, 2021

How Should I Collect?

This is a follow up to a Missive I wrote almost a dozen years ago. In fact, it was one of my first and it was titled, “What Should I Collect?”

You may be thinking, what’s the difference?  The difference is, once you have decided, what kind of art you want to collect, what are your goals in building your collection. If your interest lies in photography, do you wish to acquire Black and White photography or Color or both.  Do you want to concentrate on still lives, landscapes or portraits?  Are you concerned about how many images are in the edition?  Possibly, if the artist is well known and for one photo of which she only made ten prints. It might or might not be worth more than the one where she made hundred  prints. Is rarity important to you or is it the image or the photographer?

Oh, did you say it was for investment.  This is what I tell everyone to stay away from, yet many do it anyway.  We have collected in many fields where, by the time we were ready to sell, the value went down.  If you insist, however, you need to figure out (or is it guess) which artists will be remembered 25, 50 or 100 years from now.  Of course, Picasso comes to mind. In London recently the art market decalred “Picasso week”. It was  led by an auction sale and art dealers pulled out whatever they might have that related to the artist.  However, I consigned a Picasso drawing to a friend in London and after that week it still sits where it was! A family friend gave a Picasso ceramic plate to my wife and some years ago I looked it up and saw another version had brought $16,000!  I am sure it originally cost a few hundred.  But that is only for that specific artist and that specific plate.

Picasso working on one of his ceramic plates

Are you trying to collect a complete set? I just read a book by Leonard Lauder, eldest son of Estée Lauder. Leonard ran  the cosmetic company for many years. In the book he said he felt strongly that he had to collect the entire history of Cubism and he searched high and low for what he felt he needed to do so.  He did not bargain.  He could afford to buy what he wanted and did.  He finally donated the collection to the Metropolitan Museum where his concerted effort to acquire a chronological history of the period with noteworthy works of art by well-known artists were of particular value. 

Then do you want to collect only at auction, or at art fairs or from art dealers? From my point of view, you start at art fairs where you can get a taste of a little bit of everything and find dealers that you would feel comfortable with.  Then you visit the dealer in his or her gallery where they have more time to talk to you.  A collector once said to me it is the only place of business that you can walk into, where the owner will take a long time to talk with you and it won’t cost you a cent.  I also read that one dealer gave his prospective client a reading list!  When you have enough confidence in your knowledge of the field you wish to collect, only then venture into the art casino known as the auction house.

The European Fine Arts Fair 2019

Then, of course, comes the big moment.  You take the plunge and believe me it is scary!  You suddenly think, “What have I done?” Why did I spend this money on a piece of paper, canvas, or piece of wood etc.  I have probably told this story before, but it is pertinent here.  The first photographs I ever bought were a pair of still lifes by Edward Weston, a very important artist.  The dealer who we bought it from, Lee Witkin, a preeminant dealer of his time, believed that the important part of a photo purchase was the image.  Coming from a different art world we believed it had to be totally original.  The two still life photographs  we acquired were images  taken by Edward Weston but printed by his son Cole, a serious photographer in his own right. Still the images were most enjoyable and we kept them until the entire collection had to go.  Though we made a small profit in the intervening fifty  years, they did not bring nearly as much if the had been printed by Edward Weston.

My wife and I have been able to work together and make “discoveries” that we enjoyed for many years and learned a lot in the process. Collecting for us has been a very rewarding experience.  

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Ethics and Philanthropy

As my mother often said, “In former times”, I now find myself using the expression frequently meaning, in our world before the Pandemic.  Many of my ideas of what to write about were instigated by an active art market and museum exhibitions usually viewed first-hand. Today, it is often an idea from a family member or something I have recently read about.

 “Woke” is a recent addition to our dictionary.  It is no longer the past tense of wake but rather, a term that refers to awareness of issues that concern social and racial justice. A laudable thought indeed, particularly in the case of “Black Lives Matter” where, I believe, the term originated.  But now it has spread, for one thing, to eliminating history.  I am against removing statues of our historic leaders including one of my childhood heroes.  I grew up believing Robert E. Lee to be a hero because he was an honorable soldier in the service of his people, even if his cause was not what I was taught to believe in.  If we destroy our past, how can we possibly learn to save our future. 

One area of our culture that has, so far, preserved our past is our museums.

Which brings me to the latest “Woke” subject, --the “atrocities” of high net individuals on the Boards of Directors of our art museums. No one is perfect and some are even less perfect than others. We cannot expect that only people we all approve of will support our museums.  As it says in the bible, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”  Do we judge every prospective donor to a museum on moral grounds and turn them away if we do not like the way they earned their money?  

Depending on your politics, it is for better or for worse that our government does not fund our cultural institutions.  Therefore, someone of means must, or they will no longer exist.  Miss Frick, as she was always known (Helen Clay Frick daughter of Henry Clay Frick), after I found precisely the work of art by the artist she had requested. The message was relayed the to me, “Though it was exactly what she was looking for, I am afraid, Mr. Stiebel, that Miss Frick will never purchase anything that had belonged to the Vanderbilt’s.”  She could afford to say that our museums cannot. (For this and a couple of other stories about Miss Frick please visit,

The Museum of Modern Art is now under siege for having Leon Black, co-founder and former-CEO of Apollo Global Management, tainted by his association with Jeffrey Epstein, on their board.  He has stepped down as board chair and we are yet to find out whether he resigned his purse as well.  Where should the money and collections come from?

A new book on the Sackler family, “Empire of Pain” by Patrick Radden Keefe, details a complicated deal a former Director of the Metropolitan Museum, James Rorimer, made with the pharmaceutical mogul Arthur Sackler, well before OxyContin was created.  Sackler bought Asian works from the Museum’s own collection and then donated them back in order to have his name as their donor on the Museum wing named for the family, The Sackler Wing.  Moreover, he was given his own private enclave in the Museum to store his personal collection of Asian art in the hopes that it would be left to the Met someday.  My wife, when she was a curator at the Met worked with collections in three different departments storage areas and had a key to open most of the doors in the Museum but if the elevator stopped at the “Sackler” floor the key was useless. No Museum staff had access.  A couple of directors down the line and the bond was broken with mutual disdain and the Sackler collection went elsewhere.

So, was Rorimer right or wrong?  I am sure that if the museum had gained what was considered the most important collection in the field, he would be hailed as a visionary, but the bet did not pan out. Any leader has to take chances and if his or her successes are more fruitful than their failures, they are praised long after they are gone. In this case, Rorimer’s successes far outstripped his failures.

In 2019, bowing to pressure on account of the OxyContin scandal, the Met agreed to turn down future funds from the Sackler family but decided not to change the name of the Sackler Wing.  Mind you this was before the Museum had to close because of the pandemic.  Would they have decided differently if they had been able to predict the financial crunch of the following year?  Was it a right decision for the Met?  Could a poorer institution afford to make the same decision?  How would you decide these very thorny issues?

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Street Food

This idea all started as a joke.  Our son, Hunter, and his family moved to Santa Fe recently and he and his wife were interested in trying out the many food trucks in Santa Fe.  So, I emailed him some locations and then wrote about my car difficulties.  He replied, “I think the cart food topic is more interesting than the SUV for a blog!” I thought about it and, after all, cuisine as an art form.

Looking online I found out that mobile dining and street food have existed in this country since the late 17th century and could be found first in larger cities on the East Coast.  I grew up in New York City and while I can remember food that you could grab from an indoor vendor in a train station, at the airport or an outdoor sports arena but the only street vendors I can remember were the small ice cream push- carts and, of course, the traditional New York hot dog vendors.

I learned that already in 1691 New York City, then New Amsterdam, started regulating street vendors selling food from push carts. In 1866 Charles Goodnight invented the chuck wagon which fed cattlemen and wagon trains traversing the old West.

Good Humor vending trucks started in the 1920’s, Back, in the 1950’s I do remember, The Good Humor Man, but not in my neighborhood!

As we all know things move faster in the twenty-first century. Early on Portland Oregon became known for its varied food truck cuisine. By 2008 you could find such delicacies as Asian-infused tacos on the streets of Los Angeles. By 2010 you had the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association and in 2014 a National Food Truck Association.  Who knew?

In 2012 you could purchase a book called “Running a Food Truck for Dummies”!  I do find that a bit scary, but it shows how far we have “progressed” since the chuck wagon.

Enough of the Past.  Santa Fe has some of the best restaurants I have ever been to and in many of those with an international bent where the chef is from the country where the cuisine originated.  Even so we have growing number of food trucks, but I have never seen an ice cream cart!  At different locations several trucks feature Mexican cuisine. At the end of the Old Santa Fe Trail in a former parking lot are 5 different trucks, one with tacos, another with coffee and donuts and yet another with some of the best barbecue I have had anywhere.  To my surprise there is now even one with an Italian menu, Fettucine Alfredo, anyone?

I had joked with my son that if I tested and reviewed them all I would have a massive stomachache.  Looking it up online I found that according to Yelp there are 42 food trucks in Santa Fe, but I suspect that that does not account for the itinerant ones. Therefore, I decided not to attempt it!  Maybe another time.