Sunday, November 26, 2023

I’m Scared As Hell And Can’t Take It Anymore

My wife tells me that one of my former readers believes that I only write about politics. Yes, I have written a few Missives on politics but only a small percentage in comparison with the circa 750 I have posted since 2009.

In all good conscience, I feel I need to do it again and it always seems to be about the same issue that has only gotten much worse since 2016. Therefore, I have adapted my title from the 1976 film “Network”.

The news is full of the growth of antisemitism that is building in this country and for that matter all over the world. The fear is that “they want to replace us”. I honestly don’t understand how such a tiny minority of the world population could accomplish that? This is not a new phenomenon, and it rears its ugly head from time to time. However, this and the new republican party (no capital letters here) have reached a much scarier pitch than ever before.

I thought that nothing could get worse than when I wrote a second time about Trump over five years ago. I even said that I did not think he was a Hitler, German magazines say otherwise.

In the referred to Missive there is also a cartoon showing Trump’s love of Putin. Now, however, the situation has gotten so, so much worse. A short while ago the former president and his army of acolytes started to speak of “CAMPS”. Why is that word so familiar? Oh yes, Hitler created work camps not just for Jews, though they were by far the most afflicted, but for all those he felt were inferior or a threat. In a speech in the Reichstag on 30 January 1941, Hitler claimed that the Nazis had only copied from earlier British camps, which had existed, but as you know the Nazi concentration camps became unique in one respect!

Like Hitler Trump wants to get rid of the undesirables. If you think that is an exaggeration here is the headline from CNN, “Trump plots mass detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants should he regain power”. In May Reuters wrote that if elected again “he would seek to end automatic citizenship for children born in the United States to immigrants in the country illegally” and further he “said in a campaign video posted to Twitter that he would issue an executive order instructing federal agencies to stop what is known as birthright citizenship”.

Never mind that the latter is codified in the Constitution. But he also said regarding the 2020 election “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution”.

We want freedom of speech but there used to be limits, such as, you can’t cry fire in a crowded theater. Now the public seems to want screaming and sensational statements. Situations have to go to extremes for the press to call it like it is, but foul rhetoric is spewed across our headlines every day while congressmen criticize social media for not policing hate speech.

I am damn right to be scared and you should be too.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

The Frick Collection’s Last Exhibition at the Frick Madison

As a writer, a number of museums grant me privileges that I wish I could make full use of. I get press notices and releases and can, at least in theory, go to press previews. Living in Santa Fe I cannot easily take advantage of many.

Recently I received an invitation from the Frick Collection for the preview of their final exhibition in their Madison Avenue space. By the time you read this, the exhibition will have opened. It will neither be the largest nor the most complicated they have ever done though it definitely must have been a masterstroke of International Diplomacy. The exhibition is called “Bellini and Giorgione in the House of Taddeo Contarini”.

If you have read these Missives for a while, you already know that “St. Francis in the Desert” by Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516). has been my favorite painting in the Frick, since I was a child. It is being placed “in dialog” with Vienna’s Kunsthistoricsches Museum “Three Philosophers” by Giorgione. Only six works are generally accepted by Giorgione’s hand, and it is not a common occurrence for a museum to lend a prized work of such importance. Think of the risks involved in transatlantic shipments and the concerns of having another institution dealing with one of your precious “children”. Should, god forbid, something happen to this picture that is being sent to an institution over 4,000 miles away, the political fallout alone would be seismic!

Giorgione (circa 1477/78 – 1510), is one of the earliest and most influential Renaissance painters although there is little known about him. Since he died young at 32 or 33, Giorgio Vasari (1512-1574) in his Lives of the Artists, stated that the cause was probably the plague of that period.

Giovanni Bellini painted a dozen times as many paintings. I venture that “St. Frances in the Desert” is his best and most famous. By now you are wondering, so, what do these two works have to do with each other? The answer is quite simply that they were owned by the same collector, a Venetian nobleman, Taddeo Contarini (circa 1466-1540). It is thought that quite possibly “The Three Philosophers” was commissioned by Contarini as the companion piece to “St. Francis in the Desert”. According to the Vice-Director and Chief Curator of the Museum, Xavier F. Salomon, Contarini is best known for owning these two masterpieces. Let me not forget to say that Salomon has written an accompanying book about these two masterpieces and their owner, available at the Museum and on Amazon.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum entry on their painting says that it has been seriously cut on the left-hand side. In a paper by Patrick Boucheron, he writes, “The cavern clearly once dominated the original picture, of which 20 centimeters of the left side was chopped off in the eighteenth century – which explains why the first accounts of the workplace such emphasis on the scenery.”

The many questions that surround these complex works may be illuminated either in the show or in the accompanying book. Why the title of Giorgione’s “The Three Philosophers” is accepted today though it had had other titles such as The Three Astronomers, The Three Ages of Man, and The Magi in the past. Why was the painting cut?

There are other questions regarding St. Francis. Are we viewing a “stigmatization by light,” a symbolic portrait, or Francis singing a hymn of his own composition? There is so much symbolism in the landscape. He may be in the desert, but you can see a town very nearby.

Viewing these two paintings together as their original owner did provides the opportunity to study and analyze their meaning, or simply look and enjoy two masterpieces. The exhibition will be on view until February 24, 2024, at which time the Philosophers will go home to Vienna and St. Francis will head home to his mansion on 70th Street.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Is the Old Masters Market Dead and Gone?

From time to time there is an article like the one in the New York Times published by Scott Reyburn in January of this year. “Obsessed by the Present, Who’s Got Time for Old Masters?” The great majority of works sold by the auction houses are from this century or the last. The category of Old Master paintings, traditionally ranging from the 13th century to 1800, has recently been extended to late in the 19th century as well. I was astounded when someone said to me when speaking of Old Masters, “You mean like Picasso?”. I found it a bit absurd at the time but now I am beginning to wonder.

Life decisions are rarely made for one reason alone but rather are due to a whole lot of contributing thoughts and actions. However, in my case, the closing of my gallery, Rosenberg & Stiebel, aka Stiebel, Ltd, the primary factor was that collectors did not seem to be interested in old art anymore. I saw more and more of my colleagues going into more recent art.

When I started in the business in the mid-1960s, if you had a good Old Master painting or drawing almost every major collector and many museums came knocking on the door to take a look. Of course, there were a number of galleries with good pictures which made for a healthy market.

Today, it seems that everyone wants the newest in an iPhone or a contemporary artist’s work. I believe that to some extent it was always the case that many want to be of the moment and at the forefront of whatever is going on. Of course, in terms of art it is easier to understand and deal with what has been created here and now, rather than long ago.

Last August Artnet’s Lee Carter did an interview with Paul Henkel, who is a dealer in contemporary art and collects in that field. Although he is the son of Katrin Bellinger, the renowned art dealer, and expert in Old Master drawings, I was still surprised to learn that when asked if he could steal a work of art with impunity which one it would be, he said Caspar David Friedrich’s (1774-1840) “Two Men Contemplating the Moon” (circa 1825-30) in the Metropolitan Museum. Friedrich happens to be one of my favorite artists as well and I would put him in the Old Master category.

Needless to say, there will always be more available from the present and recent past than from centuries ago. Ergo, there are more collectors in this area.

I honestly don’t think that has changed, but what has changed is the fortunes that collectors are willing to spend on these recent works of art. While money used to be a word one spoke of quietly, today wealth is flaunted. What better way to show off than to outbid everyone in the auction room and sales of modern art offer many more opportunities.

Everyone is attracted to celebrity, be it the name of the artist or the collector. Sometimes both bring added value. If you have material from a name like Rothschild everybody pays attention. In this fall’s sale at Christie's New York of works from the French Rothschilds, the highest-priced painting was Gerrit Dou’s (1613-1675) “A young woman holding a hare with a boy at a window” (ca.1653–57), which was estimated at $3 to 5 million and brought just over $7 million. At the Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, auction Sandro Botticelli’s (1444/5-1510) “Madonna of the Magnificent” brought $48,480,000. My father had a sarcastic expression in German that translates, “For some people that is all the money they have”!!!

The entrepreneur and collector Thomas Kaplan (1962- ) said in an interview with Cheyenne Wehren this past March at TEFAF (The European Fine Arts Fair) that when, as a child, his mother trying to expand his horizons took him to the Museum of Modern Art he told her that he wanted to go back to the Metropolitan Museum to see the Rembrandts. When he became head of an investment firm, he figured there were no more great Old Masters to collect. In 2003, however, he happened to be seated next to Sir Norman Rosenthal, then exhibition secretary at the Royal Academy of the Arts, who encouraged him to look again. In subsequent years, with the help of some of the major dealers in the field, he built a collection of 250 Dutch 17th-century paintings and drawings. He dubbed it the Leiden Collection, after Rembrandt’s hometown. You can measure the importance of his holdings by his loans of numerous paintings to museums including the Pushkin in Russia, the Louvre, and the Met. And yes, his collection includes 11 Rembrandts and a Vermeer.

In an article in the Magazine Apollo of January 30, 2023, “How Healthy is the market for Old Masters?” Jane Morris summed it up nicely: “Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the Old Master market has remained the same while everything around it has grown. The rarity of great works by the most famous Old Masters means they can compete in value with expensive impressionist, modern, and contemporary works.”

Sunday, November 5, 2023


Last week we went down to the Albuquerque Museum to see an exhibition of the work of both Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) and Henry Moore (1898-1986). This is a traveling exhibition called logically enough “O’Keeffe and Moore” originated by the San Diego Museum of Art and curated by Anita Feldman, San Diego’s Director for Curatorial Affairs.

As I have quoted a former museum director before, the art museum “is a small corner of the entertainment world”. It follows that the curators and/or director are responsible for enticing the art interested public to come for a visit. They must think of exhibitions that either show a new concept or a twist on something old to achieve this goal. Even though bringing together works by an artist like Vermeer can be a big draw, that can only be attempted once in a generation.

For the current exhibition Ms. Feldman brought together works by O’Keeffe and Moore because they “pioneered and shared a coherent vision and approach to Modernism.” She sees a common denominator between them in their reliance on found objects. I liked the fact that the exhibition centered on recreations of the artists’ studios, O’Keeffe’s in New Mexico and Moore’s in Hertfordshire, England, both filled with a number of those found objects. No need to identify which is which here.

The two artists lived and worked almost 5,000 miles apart and met only once at the Museum of Modern Art during a Retrospective of Henry Moore’s work in 1946. O’Keeffe had her retrospective there a few months earlier. Hers was the first MOMA retrospective ever done for a female artist.

I must admit I have trouble understanding what O’Keeffe and Moore have in common beyond the fact that at a time when most abstraction was geometric theirs was more organic. True they both found inspiration in the forms of bones they collected. However, the basic difference I discern in their art is confirmed in the two interviews shown in the exhibition: Moore’s work is born in his head while O’Keeffe’s comes from her gut. His is analytical while hers shows love and passion.

O’Keeffe clearly loves the Southwest and the land and feels before she paints. Here is her Black Place II from the Vilcek Collection and “Pelvis with Distance” from the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Moore plays with forms and models in his studio. When blown up in bronze in situ, they do come alive and have a calming effect. In the show is this “Reclining Figure” (1968) in wood almost 8 feet wide, one or Moore’s working models for a work which was to be over 40 feet at I.M. Pei’s Dallas City Hall. The final work was split up so that the public could walk through it. Here is the model and an image of the final altered work in situ.

Ending on a whim this image of Moore’s “Moon Head” of 1964 in porcelain with O’Keeffe’s painting of a “Clam Shell” from 1930 in the background appealed to me. Here works by the different artists do seem to have something in common. If you don’t see what I do, join my wife!

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Keeping Indigenous Art Indigenous

What a strange title. Well, it is not mine. That is the title of an article in the October 9th issue of Bloomberg Business Week by Erin Vivid Riley. What is even more surprising is that the article centers on Santa Fe. Not that this is not an issue, but Santa Fe and its art world are not a subject usually found in an international business magazine.

Personally, I am very happy to see it. I found I did write about this subject 8 years ago in a Missive called Truth in Marketing. At that time the Mayor of Santa Fe recommended to the State Legislature a Truth in Marketing law but there has been little result.

The 1990 federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which addresses the issue says “It is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced” and the penalties can be quite severe.

Unfortunately, it is rarely enforced and there are no state or city regulations against false advertising.

The issue is especially important to Santa Fe as the city depends on tourism and Native American art is a major draw, yet so many shops offer counterfeit wares.

Over half a century ago I remember a story about a Japanese town named USA where they could label their production “Made in USA”. In more recent times it is said that in China there is a town calling itself Zuni so that they can sell fetishes made at Zuni. Traditionally for the people of the pueblo of Zuni, fetishes, the small carvings made primarily from stone, have protective significance. They have also become a form of Native American art for collectors and tourists. While some made with sought-after stone like turquoise may be expensive many made by Zuni artists can be acquired for under $100.

Larry Barker of KRQE News posted a story in May of 2021 and wrote about an Albuquerque businessman with several shops of so-called Native American art. His source, however, was not the artists but rather a sweatshop in Cebu City, the Philippines which produced millions of dollars worth of fake Native American-style jewelry. They would obtain legitimate pieces make molds and reproduce the objects over and over again. Once in a while, the Feds do step in under the Indian Arts and Craft Act (IACA). At that time they arrested three people involved in selling counterfeit Native American art from the Philippines, but that is the exception, not the rule. The possible penalties are not meted out severely enough to stop the illicit market.

The fake art, especially jewelry, is often cheaper because the real thing is laboriously handmade by Indian artists who depend on that income to support their families. I don’t understand why bother coming to Santa Fe if you will settle for a fake. Do people go to Paris in order to buy rip off designer couture? If you feel that your friends won’t know the difference, why not buy online? Here are some images of the real thing.

It should not be a question of “caveat emptor” but the best way to be sure of authenticity is buying from trustworthy dealers, and there are many. Ask at the museums that exhibit Native art, not for a list that they won’t give you, but for galleries you might visit to find specifically, katsinas or ceramic pots or jewelry etc.

You can also come to Santa Fe for the SWAIA Indian Market, where, on the third weekend of August, more than 200 Native American artists gather to exhibit and sell their art. Authenticity in techniques and materials is vigilantly regulated at this event. I know that when we have friends and relatives coming to town, we are very careful to tell them which shops and galleries they can trust to sell the real thing.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Losing a Language

My parents were German refugees, and I was born before the end of World War II. They did not want me associated with Germany, which was still the enemy, so they were determined that I be as American as possible and therefore only spoke English with me. Having lived both in England and France after escaping Germany they spoke all three languages fluently, so this was not a problem. Of course, they spoke German with each other, so I had to learn some in self defense! I have a friend who came over somewhat later and her parents did not wish her to forget Germany, so they only spoke German to her at home. Today I wish that my parents had spoken German to me, but they were right not to at the time.

I recently read a story in the Smithsonian Magazine and the National Museum of the American Indian in an article called “Waking a language from its slumber” by Kasike Jorge Baracutay Esteve. He has been a cultural activist wishing to bring back the Taino language to the indigenous people of the Caribbean. This has become an important issue to many tribes in the States as well. My first thought was … why?

A fascinating paper called “Native Language Revitalization: Keeping the Languages Alive and Thriving” by Amy M. Gannet at Southeastern Oklahoma University goes into the subject in great depth. Every other sentence is footnoted so maybe it is a Phd thesis. She says that there are approximately 7,000 languages in use today and that by the end of this century 50-90% will be extinct. Again, why is this happening?

I believe I have found a major reason as regards the Native Americans. You have probably heard about the Indian Boarding schools where the relatively new Americans wanted to “tame the savages” by teaching the Indians Anglo ways. You have maybe heard Governor Ron de Santis say, something to the effect that there was nothing here until we came. This unfortunately was, and seems still is, the attitude of many.

Native Americans have kept much of their culture alive with traditional arts and ceremonies that differ in each tribe. However, as Native languages were forbidden in Indian boarding schools and any use was punished, graduates seeing the Anglos were taking over, and many wished to have their children assimilate, which was the idea. As a result, a dwindling number of tribal elders retained fluency.

Some of the Native American Languages

In 1990 Congress passed the Native American Languages Act (NALA) to allow the use of Native American languages as a medium of instruction in schools giving the children the right to express themselves and be educated in their native language. In 2006 Congress went further enacting the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act to help keep Native American languages alive through language immersion programs.

Language is part of cultural heritage. An element of understanding is lost in translation, particularly in imparting stories of the past where words have no modern equivalent. Even though Latin and ancient Greek lie at the root of modern Western languages and continue in scientific vocabulary their study has been dropped from the school curriculum. Only specialized scholars can access the great works of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Homer in the original. Per example

A fragment of the second book of the Elements of Euclid, the ancient Greek mathematician, was discovered in 1897 at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt.

My wife speaks French fluently and can get along in Spanish. I can get along in French and German though the latter is better. Obviously English is our native language yet there are certain words and phrases we say to each other in another language because their exact meaning cannot be translated. Here is a simple expression, “attention”. It is even the same word in English but in French, it might be said to someone as a warning, ie watch out if there is a step or other hazard ahead.

Bringing back all languages that are dying out may not be possible but for those that can be revived an important understanding of history and identity can be passed on to future generations.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Protecting Cultural Property and Preemption

I have written quite a few times on the subject of Cultural Property including a whole series of Missives last year. If you go to and put cultural property into the search box you can scroll down through them ...

This, however, is from a different angle, the laws on Preemtion. In 1976, about the time I started to get involved in this isssue, a paper was published by Pace Law Faculty Publications called “Protecting America’s Cultural and Historical Patrimony”. The author, James J. Fishman made a case that we should have a law of preemption in this country. He cited the example of an auction where marble bust of Benjamin Franklin by the important French sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon, that had been in this country since 1785, went to a European collector outbidding an American who was considering giving it to the the White House House… a noble idea, no doubt. What goes around comes around and the bust bought at the time by the British Railway Pension fund as an investment has found its way back home and is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art!

Fishman compared this to a small bronze relief of the Virgin and Child by the master Donatello. In that case after the bronze was sold in England to an American art dealer, Eugene Victor Thaw. The British government refused to grant the buyer an export license. This was necessary at the time, for any object worth over £4,000 purchased by a foreigner. The buyer was stuck between the preverbial rock and a hard place! The Donatello was held for the mandatory three months and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London acquired it.

France also has an export law but they have an additional interesting twist when it comes to an auction. Just a few months ago The Gazette Drouot, the publication of the Paris auction building where various auction houses stage their sales, announced the sale, in Versailles, of a very rare intact terracotta by François Anguier (1604-1669). It is the model for a funerary monument for Jacques de Souvré (1600-1670). It sold for the record figure of $2.85 million. The winning bidder, who must have sweated through a heated bidding war, was in for a very unfortunate surprise. From a far off corner he heard that a French museum was preempting the sale!

I have witnessed this outcome more than once sitting in a Paris auction room, when after the hammer dropped, I heard a voice shouting “préempté” and saw the face of the would-be purchaser. The museum curator, in this case from the Louvre, has a maximum figure at which he is authorized to buy the piece. If the object brings that price or lower they pay the price and it is theirs. In this case the Louvre could match the unprecedented figure because the terracotta was the preparatory work for the marble which was already in the museum’s collection.

If you want to know more about preemptions here is an excellent French article.

UNESCO has a list of 3,111 National Cultural Heritage Laws regarding export and import laws many covered by Memoranda of Understanding (MOA). Should you wish to find out all of them

Often these laws exempt from regualtion works of low value or from more recent periods.England and France have become more liberal requiring export licences only for works with higher values. In 2020, after years of lobbying, the Italian authorities, who are the most stringent, relented a little. The rule that only works by living artists or those that died less than 50 years ago could be exported without licensing review was amended to those by artists who died over 70 years ago and were valued under €13,500. Older works of art, regardless of value, still require an export license.

In 2022 the U.S. Congress passed the first law to protect American cultural property and it was in aid of Native Americans. The full title of the new law is the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act (STOP Act). Kate Fitz Gibbon, a lawyer with a specialty in Cultural Property, wrote in “Cultural Property News” “The STOP Act’s stated goal is to prevent the export of objects that were obtained in violation of federal laws, the Native American Graves Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA). However, the STOP Act has also been described as giving Native American tribes the power to halt overseas sales of a far broader range of Native American objects, effectively locking them within U.S. borders.”

The new law is meant to protect objects deemed sacred by the tribes from leaving the country. The regulations that must follow remain to be seen and hopefully they will reflect the guidelines and not stifle the legal trade and collecting of Native American art.

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Museum Insider Theft

The vast majority of museum employees are honest hard-working people, but those who are not are more intriguing.

As you know from my Missive on September 17 “How Many is Too Many” the British Museum has fired the curator who was accused of stealing 2,000 (now rounded down to 1500) objects and selling them on eBay.

Much if not most of a museum collection remains in storage. Therefore, it is the easiest place to pluck objects from as you don’t leave any blank spaces on a wall or in an exhibition case.

On April 7, 2023, Daniel Cassady reported in Art News that two years earlier an aide at the Museum of the Plains Indian on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana went on a 4-month pillaging spree. He was caught on a security camera trying on various moccasins to see which might fit. Not all the objects he filched have yet been retrieved. The piece that was featured was a Great Plains Men’s fur necklace with grizzly bear claws and brass beads.

Most published examples of employee theft that I could find happened abroad. It may be that since American museums depend on donations from the public to survive, they keep inside jobs as quiet as possible. It could also be that in the U.S non-curatorial museum employees prefer cash. At the Field Museum in Chicago, an individual in charge of ticket sales pleaded guilty to pocketing cash receipts of over $335,000. At the Whitney Museum employees in a similar position, one was accused of stealing $850,000 and another a paltry $30,000!

In Guangzhou, China a former library curator at Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, was charged with selling authentic art works and replacing them with fakes that he forged on his own. Prosecutors claim that he took advantage of his post to steal more than 140 works between 2002 and 2010, including traditional Chinese paintings by renowned artists Zhang Daqian and Qi Baishi.

In the Macedonian Capital, Skopje six employees including the museum’s director were convicted in 2015 of stealing 162 artifacts from the state-owned museum and selling them abroad.

Most thieves get caught eventually even though they try to sell their purloined goods as far away as possible from where they stole them and as annonymously. But some don’t and are caught right away. On September 25 Jo Lawson-Tancred reported the following story in ArtNet News regarding a serious “dummkopf” and I use the word advisedly for the translation of the German word is bonehead or fool.

This unidentified employee worked in the collections management department of the Deutsch’s Museum in Munich. His modus operandi was to take paintings that were in storage and put copies in their place. He stole 3 paintings between 2016 and 2018 then gave them to an auction house, Ketterer, in the same city telling them they had belonged to his grandparents. One painting, Franz von Stuck’s “The Frog King” of 1891, sold to a Swiss gallery for $74,000 leaving the employee with around $50,000 after various fees were deducted. When questioned about their research of the provenance a spokesperson for Ketterer said it had “simply not been possible to identify them as stolen”!

Note to thief, do not put art you have stolen from the museum in a public auction for all to see and certainly not in the same city as your museum!!!

Sunday, October 1, 2023

ChatGPT Art Exhibit

At a museum an exhibition curator comes up with the concept and is responsible for its realization. It is not just picking out the works to be assembled but also negociating loans beyond their museums own holdings. This often means arranging for conservation of the works to be shown. Then they work with an exhibit designer so that the installation conveys the story they wish to tell.

Sometimes a life changing experience can begin with a joke. (Our living in New Mexico is such a story but for another time.) In the case I am writing about it is an exhibition that started that way. The chief curator, Marshall Price, at the Nasher Museum at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, offhandedly suggested at a curatorial meeting that considering a shortage of staff and the need to fill a hole in the museum’s exhibition schedule why not outsource an exhibition to Artificial Intelligence (AI)! His staff enthusiastically latched on to the concept.

Logically enough they decided that the title of the show would be, “Act as if you are a Curator: an AI Generated Exhibition”. This addresses what people fear most: that AI will take their jobs away. To begin Price’s colleagues Julia McHugh and Julianne Miao had to enter their dataset (a structured collection of data associated with their concept for the show) as well as some prompts to refine the idea. Why? For one thing the show was to come from the museum’s own holdings and how could AI know the collection without the information first being put into the database. AI made a suggestion for a title from a description of the collection already on-line, “Art Across Cultures: Celebrating Diversity in the Nasher Collection”, but I am not sure that would have brought in a great number of visitors.

In a review in the New York Times Zachary Small quotes from his interviews. Chief Curator Marshall Price said of the exhibition created under his auspices, “I would say it’s an eclectic show, visually speaking it will be quite disjointed, even if it’s thematically cohesive.” Price added on the positive side, “It was a new lens through which we could see and understand our collections”.

Curator Julia McHugh said of their exhibition, “It made me think really carefully about how we use keywords and describe artworks,” McHugh said. “We need to be mindful about bias and outdated systems of cataloging.”

The success of an AI exhibition basically depends on the algorithm that creates the show, i.e.the process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.

AI had already been used in the artworld. The Bucharest Biennale last year was organized by an AI named Jarvis. Dorian Batycka in an article in Artnet News wrote that Jarvis was developed by DERAFFE Wien, led by Răzvan Ionescu, a Romanian software engineer. Right off the bat It spit out the following, “I am AI Jarvis […] I can do whatever human curators can do: research, write texts, select artists, and in the future, I will be able to work with architectural structures.” However, it is “still unable to complete many of the mundane, administrative tasks often left to curators”, “we do not yet have a system that implies programmatically checking with the artists if they can attend, if their paperwork can be completed, and all the other administrative aspects.”

I read a 2021 article by Flavia Rotondi about a museum in Bologna, Italy using cameras and AI to see how long people stood in front of works of art, what they pointed to and what they ignored. There were unexpected findings. For example, regarding visitors looking at a 14th-century diptych by Vitale degli Equi, data showed that “attention was immediately attracted to the ‘busier’ representation of Saint Peter’s blessing, to the right,” said Bologna Musei President Roberto Grandi. He was surprised to find that many visitors simply skipped the diptych’s left half. These findings can lead to ways to bring more attention to installation, juxtaposition with other works and lighting.

A Nasher press release sums it all up: “While museum professionals are far from relinquishing control of exhibition making and interpretation, this exercise is a powerful way to explore the applications of AI in the creative realm as related to curatorial authorship and expertise, the subjectivity of the selection process, and the future impact of technology on museums.”

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Black Cowboys

I have been interested in cowboys since I can remember. I am sure this was greatly influenced by the movie westerns of the 50’s. But we also had an annual rodeo at Madison Square Garden in New York and I learned many years later from a cowboy in Arizona that this event was what all Rodeo riders aspired to.

Once Upon A Time ...

In Later Years, Wickenburg, AZ

Therefore, a week ago, we went to a lecture titled “Enslaved and Free Black Cowboys in the Southwest”. It took place at the New Mexico History Museum. It was just one episode of a humanities festival called, American identities, “illuminating diverse American experiences through lectures, music, film, and discussion”. The organizing institution, the School of Advanced Research (SAR) is led by Michael F. Brown, a cultural anthropologist, bills itself as an “institution advancing creative thought and innovative work in social sciences and humanities and fostering the preservation and revitalization of Native American cultural heritage.” The Black history subject, unusual for Santa Fe, drew a packed house.

The lecturer was Ron Davis,II, a Phd candidate at the University of Texas. Austin who recently curated an exhibition on Black cowboys for the Witte Museum in San Antonio. He had a 24-year career in the military and served in various capacities including 5 deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. To make a long story short during his initial posting in Oklahoma he was sent to recruit voter registration at the Black rodeo. He, being Black, but from Boston, was not aware of Black rodeo performers. He started talking on one of the contestants and asked how long his family had been riding. The reply surprised him. They were cowboys before the civil war. That piqued his curiosity.

When he left the military he went to study at the University of Texas, Austin. In the academic environment, and particularly as a Phd student, he found himself deep in the weeds, but his advisor told her students to read their sources over and over again. He did so and soon felt as if he knew some of these cowboys personally.

One of the first things he learned is that it was only through Hollywood movies that all cowboys became White. In reality, 25% of the cowhands on any cattle drive were black and 62% of the ranchers owned slaves. In the early days a ranch was considered large if it had just 100 head of cattle. Even then skilled cowhands were needed. As soon as a slave turned 10 they were expected to start working. One of the slave cowboys he read about broke his first horse at the age of 10.

By the 1880’s the XIT ranch was the largest fenced ranch in the world. It covered 10 counties roughly 30 miles wide and covering 3 million acres in the Texas Panhandle near what is now Lubbock, Texas. In 1885 it had 22,000 head of cattle which eventually grew to 150,000.

The autobiography of a Black cowboy, Hector Bazy, particularly fascinated Ron Davis. Born into slavery Bazy began working as a cowboy at the age of 14. He tells his story of everyday life for the cowhand from 1865 into the 1890’s. He writes that on the trail cowboys made no racial distinctions. Their goal was to make money. Of course, when they were back in town everything returned to what was then “normal”. After the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) nothing really changed in the southern and border states. Jim Crow started in the 1870’s and continued into the 1960’s. (I still remember, as a little boy, asking my father when we visited Florida why I couldn’t use the bathroom at the restaurant that said Negros or Colored on the door.)

Though their work was essential on the long cattle drives even the most skilled Black cowboys were not promoted because of their color. Some of them however saved enough money to purchase their own head of cattle.

Ron Davis’ research taught me a lot about the reality of the images of the Old West I had as a kid. A fascinating detail came from a question at his lecture: among the top-earning star jockeys of the early Kentucky Derby races so many were Black because of their background as cowboys.



Sunday, September 17, 2023

How Many Is Too Many?

You have probably read about the theft from the British Museum where a curator has been accused of taking 2,000 uncatalogued pieces from the museum and selling them on Ebay. One individual commented that “if the Elgin Marbles weren’t so gosh darned heavy, we would probably find them on the Portobello road” (a large market of “antique, bric-a-brac and vintage clothing” in London).

My point, however, is that 2,000 sounds like, and is, a very large number but it is only one quarter of one percent of the museum’s 8 million objects. Does any museum need that many pieces?

My wife and I have had this discussion for roughly half a century! It all started when she was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum and I asked if the museum needed 1.5 million objects in their collection. As a dealer I would say “Let the collectors keep some of the spoils” and if I were taking the museum side, I might say “Why not give some to smaller museums?”.

According to the Met’s website, there collections include in alphabetical order: Arms and Armor, Ancient American Art, Asian Art, Costume, Drawings & Prints, Egyptian Art, European Paintings, Sculpture and Decorative Arts, Greek and Roman Art, Islamic Art, Medieval Art, Modern & Contemporary Art, Musical Instruments, Oceanic Art, and Photographs.

I read recently that the museum also has a collection of over 30,000 Baseball cards given to the museum by Jefferson R. Burdick. It is the most comprehensive collection outside of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. My wife tells me that those baseball cards come under the print collection and can be an example of printing of the period. Good point, but do you need that many in order to make it. How many could you put in an exhibition anyway? My wife counters that by saying exhibitions are not the point and the in-depth collection is a study resource that can be drawn upon for exhibition.

When Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft with Bill Gates, died his incredible fine arts collection was sold at Christie’s auction house for a whopping 1.5 billion dollars to be split among a number of charities. In some publication there was a comment that he should have left the collection to the Met. I found that ridiculous because, in my opinion, the Met did not need it. I would have suggested giving this fabulous collection to a small university museum making it a destination in the art world. Who knows, there may even be a bonus for the university in that some new visitor might become a benefactor.

I spoke with a European curator, who preferred to remain anonymous, about this matter. She pointed out a number of interesting issues. She mentioned that in Europe many museums are government funded and that governments will contribute financial support for the acquisition of works of art that they feel are “important” key pieces that will enhance the collection and will put the museum and the locality on the map. The Dutch government put up 150 million out of a total of 175 million Euros to purchase Rembrandt’s Standard Bearer from the Rothschild Family for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

I asked why does a museum need a great deal of filler after that goal has been reached. Her quick reply was, “it is not a question of need but of want”! I believe that goes for the private collector as well, but the latter would not be spending money that was raised publicly or privately nor having to physically expand the institution to accommodate the acquisitions, adding to the cost

Of course, as she said, the concept should not be about accumulation but rather the reason for collecting. The purpose should be in relation to the hierarchy of the cultural institution.

An encyclopedic goal leads to huge numbers. The Art Institute of Chicago notes on its website, that it “encompasses more than 5,000 years of human expression from cultures around the world and contains more than 300,000 works of art in 11 curatorial departments, ranging from early Japanese prints to the art of the Byzantine Empire to contemporary American art.” The Minneapolis Institute of Art website states something similar covering art from six continents, spanning about 5,000 years and they have “only” 90,000 works of art.

How many is too many? Now, if you don’t have enough to think about, the curator mentioned above said she believes “today the logic of museums is being questioned”.