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The Out-of-Sight Costs of Being in the Art Business

January 29, 1988|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

Costs of buying and exhibiting first-rate works of art are spiraling out of sight and Donald Marron is concerned.

"Could the Met do a Van Gogh exhibition now (after the Dutch master's work has fetched up to $53.9 million at auction)? Will collectors continue to loan works of art to museums when the values are so high? Will insurance companies insure such high-priced art and will anyone be able to afford the premiums? These are the issues of the future," said Marron, the multititled chief of Paine Webber and president of the board of trustees at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

"You already hear people say, 'This is the last Van Gogh show' or 'This is the last Degas show.' If that is true, it's very sad. It's up to leading cultural institutions in the country's leading cities to prevent that from happening. New York and Los Angeles are at the top of that list," he said, simultaneously issuing a challenge and accepting partial responsibility for solving the problem.

During a visit to Los Angeles this week, Marron, 53, said that New York is "in a position of no growth in state and federal funding, and the Museum of Modern Art gets no money from the city. We used to be sure that exhibition costs would be covered by outside sponsorship. Last year was the first year that was no longer the case.

"The reason is the cost--of everything from insurance to crating. This comes at the same time that acquisition prices have increased," he said. "And I don't see an easing of pressures. For all institutions the squeeze is going to get worse."

Compounding the financial dilemma is the fact that "the demand (for art exhibitions) has grown tremendously," Marron said. "It's just astonishing how much more popular art is than it was 10 years ago. I'm amazed at the number of people who want to know all about, say, (Italian contemporary artist) Sandro Chia."

Marron suggested that creative cooperation is the key to dealing with escalating prices. One thing museums can do is "work together to get funding" for a single traveling exhibition, he said. On a broader scale, "we need a national effort to raise public consciousness about the value of our cultural institutions and the costs of maintaining them at a high level of quality."

Museums have been on a roll in this country and the "momentum has to be maintained," Marron said. "Europe is not burdened with this problem" because the governments pay for museums, but "we have to get more government and corporate support." Stressing the need for an "increased commitment" from corporations, Marron said one area where the government can be effective is in exercising control over insurance rates.

As the Museum of Modern Art's audience has grown, the institution has had to seek "a broader sponsorship"--from both corporations and individuals, Marron said. Some observers worry that art museums' popularity and corporate involvement will lead to more accessible, flashy shows, but Marron flatly denied any such threat.

"The integrity of our exhibitions program is absolute," he said. "The staff makes all art decisions and it always has." Though it may be more difficult to obtain funding for one exhibition than another, he said the museum deals with that problem after it has decided to organize a particular show. Programs that do not attract major backing from a single business may be paid for by individuals or groups of corporations.

Marron, who became a trustee at the Museum of Modern Art in 1975 and board president in 1985, joined the museum when it was undergoing a major expansion and reconsidering its mission. Though it was founded as "a new kind of museum--one with an open, adventuresome policy, which participated in the outlook and interests of the artists of our time," some critics charged that it had become a museum of the past as "modern" became a historical term.

"That was the perception," Marron agreed, but it wasn't the practice. "The museum has always been dedicated to contemporary art. One of the major reasons for the expansion was to accelerate that commitment and make more room for contemporary art," he said.

MOMA has added a contemporary curator, revived its "Projects" series of works by relatively little-known artists and dedicated permanent exhibition spaces to contemporary drawings, prints and photography.

While commercial galleries react to new art more quickly and "show all the trends," Marron sees the museum's role as presenting contemporary art in historical context. The museum should be an editor and an educator, he said. "No generation produces more than a handful of great artists. There's a lot of sorting out to do." Now that contemporary art has developed such a big audience, it is incumbent upon the museum to "present a thoughtful point of view" and to fill educational needs.

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