Sunday, June 27, 2021

What’s It Worth?

These days before starting a new Missive I have to look whether I have written on the same subject before. When I searched for this title, I found I had but you probably don’t remember, because it was about 550 Missives ago in 2010. At that time, I was speaking of quality and discussing a French 18th century console table. 

This time it is about paintings and the market in general. Since I do not believe in buying art as investment, I have not been paying enough attention to the incredible prices that some art brings.

In 1962 the Louvre had to find a value at which to insure the Mona Lisa, said to be the most valuable painting in the world. The value that was put on it at the time was an unprecedented 100 million dollars. Why? I would say because of all the hype, that has surrounded it after it had been stolen in 1911. There is now a new kind of bullet proof glass which it hides behind in a gallery where a nearby Titian and Veronese are ignored by hordes of visitors.

In 2017, however, a painting attributed in whole or in part to Leonardo after having long been thought of as a copy and dating from the first decade of the sixteenth century brought a bit over 450 million dollars. I will be honest with you, if you had asked me whether to buy this painting, I would have advised against it considering that if it was doubted before it might fall into doubt again.

If you want to feel a bit better about this figure, with inflation the 1962 valuation of the Mona Lisa would be the equivalent of $860 million today. I am sure that is part of the issue. Today people figure the net worth of a work of at in percentage related to inflation … but how many people can afford that kind of money? Not many, and that is why the art world is thought of as elitist. 

Back to prices. For part of my wife, Penelope’s career at the Met, she worked in the 20th Century Department, at the time, directed by Henry Gelzahler. He was described by New York Magazine as, ‘the most powerful and controversial art curator alive’. He was also the darling of all the artists. He spoke to Andy Warhol every day and Arnold Newman photographed him at home. 

David Hockney solidified his reputation as a great artist with his painting of Henry Geldzahler and his significant other, Christopher Scott (1969). Not the other way around as some people think. The painting, however, never belonged to Henry and Christopher but in 2019 it brought £37,661,250 or $49,557,100 at Christies, London. Why? Because it was a watershed moment for Hockney and Henry who had become a very important personage in the formation of the New York style. 

What is most astounding is that this painting was at the bottom of the list of the ten most expensive ten paintings sold that year. Of course, iconic names topped the list such as Monet, Koons (could have fooled me), Rauschenberg whose painting does include an image of JFK, also Cezanne, Picasso and Warhol.

On the National Day of Reflection in the UK, Banksy's “Game Changer” sold for £16,758,000 having had an estimate of “only” £2,500,000 5o 3,5000,000. The painting appeared at University Hospital, Southampton, England after the first wave of Covid-19. It appeared with this note, ‘Thanks for all you’re doing. I hope this brightens the place up a bit, even if it’s only black and white.”
After 10 months Banksy donated it to Southampton’s Hospital Charity which put it up for auction. The proceeds are to be used to support the wellbeing of University Hospital staff and patients as well as benefiting associated health organizations across the United Kingdom.

Banksy is the “Nom de plume” for a street artist whose work has appeared on buildings and other publicly visible surfaces including self-built physical prop pieces. Though never identified for sure his biography goes on for pages on Wikipedia! So why did that painting bring a fortune? Surely all the publicity his work has gained over the years has helped. His work is popular, his prints have sold very well and, particularly this past year, people want to support the good works of the medical community. 

Art could never be commercially explained. Why do people fall in love with apiece of art. Unfortunately, in recent times some think of it as investment or fill in the blanks like a stamp collection but most people still buy for the thrill of discovery and love of the work.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Designer

For the past 12 years since I started Missives from the Art World, my wife has been my editor and we are still married after 45 years! In my last blog on “The Packaged Show” I left out one word that was vital, and she wrote it in! That word was, “Designer”. 

What brought this home was an obituary in the New York Times about Stuart Silver, who was a museum designer who began his career as a designer at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He was suddenly promoted from making signs and posters to head of the Design Department. The person who promoted him was the innovative director of the Museum at the time, Tom Hoving ...

Silver is best known for his design of the block buster “Treasures of Tutankhamen” which was a travelling exhibition as discussed in my last Missive presented at the Met in 1978. As usual one individual, Stuart Silver, received all the credit. Obviously, the head of a group does not do all the things she or he is given credit for. In this case another young designer in the Met department had originated the Tut entrance concept and continued working out the problems of numerous other blockbusters for Stuart: his name is Clifford LaFontaine. I saw his genius in the one museum exhibition where I curated with my wife called “The Grand Gallery” at the Met 1974-1975. When he went on to become an independent designer my wife subsequently worked with him on exhibitions for other museums and I enlisted him to create installations in our gallery.

As we have remained close friends over the years, I wrote to Clifford about this Missive, and he reminded me to include the critical importance of lighting as it could make or break an exhibition. The genius in that area he developed for Met blockbusters was Lamar Terry, another individual who got no credit for his role which revolutionized how works of art were lit. Penelope called him, “The Prince of Darkness” because before there can be light there is none. To quote Clifford, “He made everyone else, at least, look as smart as they thought they were” which certainly could be said of Clifford as well.

You might not have thought of something Clifford brought up as critical in exhibition design, and that is money. The designer has a budget within which they must remain. In order not to waste money there must also be a comprehensive and detailed plan for the concept and placement of every work otherwise, staff time will be wasted which adds to the cost.

Clifford also stressed that for an exhibition to be considered a success the entry to the show must be enticing and the exit must be memorable. Here is what the New York Times wrote about the Tutankhamen design in the obituary for Stuart Silver “He put visitors in the position of questing archaeologists. They began by walking up a staircase leading to a photo mural of the gloomy entrance to King Tut’s tomb in Egypt. The first gallery was bathed in darkness, recreating a cryptlike atmosphere. Each object in the show appeared in the order in which it had been removed from the tomb.” How much more exciting is that than just putting objects in vitrines.

But let’s look at a much simpler situation, if you wish to exhibit a collection of Mark Rothko’s then the most basic decision is important. What color do you paint the walls? If you put a Rothko on a white or black wall it will pop but if you put it on a green wall it will counteract the effect of Rothko’s very subtle colors.

Here again lighting becomes vital to the installation. My wife recalls struggling to light a Rothko with a series of large abstract paintings by other artists in an exhibition at the Met. After lighting the other canvases, she finally hit upon using just ambient light to allow the Rothko’s colors to softly vibrate.

At the Tate Modern an installation called “Inner Space” is an example of an exhibition playing one Rothko against another and giving visitors a chance to absorb the variations in the artist’s vocabulary.

Photo by David Silltoe for the Guardian

At the Stedelijk Museum Schiedam with the title, “Rothko and Me”. A visitor could become immersed in a single Rothko alone in an intimate setting.

It is amazing how the installation can make a show with the same objects a success in one venue and a failure in another.

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.