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Exhibit Some Fairness, Museum Asks

February 20, 1988

When I was a young child, my parents had an old dog they had kept for years. I never did anything to antagonize that dog. I couldn't understand why every time I would go into the back yard it would bark, growl and nip at me.

And I can't understand why Cathy Curtis keeps picking on the Modern Museum of Art, either. Especially since there isn't much substance to her growls.

Ms. Curtis' biggest bone of contention seems to be that the museum borrowed too heavily from dealers for the first two exhibitions.

In September, Art and Auction Magazine printed an article about the impact of museum exhibitions on the market. In it, Earl Powell, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is quoted: "You can't do a contemporary art exhibition without dealers being a substantial source of loans."

Although the article does give examples of some exhibitions enhancing the market--the primary ethical concern about museums borrowing from dealers--instances in which the market was adversely affected are also cited. The conclusion of the article is that the correlation between museum exhibitions and the market is vague.

To my knowledge, the Cleveland Museum of Art, which rarely organizes exhibitions of living contemporary artists, is the only museum with a blanket policy against borrowing from dealers. Howard Fox's recent "Avant-Garde in the '80s" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art relied heavily on loans from dealers.

Most of the works borrowed for Newport Harbor's recent Robert Morris exhibition were courtesy of Leo Castelli Gallery. Santa Barbara Museum, Laguna Art Museum and Newport Harbor Art Museum all have contemporary California artist exhibition programs, which rely extensively on loans from dealers. In some instances, entire exhibitions have been borrowed from one dealer.

Jose Tasende's commercial gallery in La Jolla has organized a number of exhibitions of works for sale through his gallery, exhibits that have traveled to museums across the country. Never has a word of impropriety been printed about any of the above.

Ms. Curtis has also suggested that gallery clients might confuse the "imprimatur" of the Modern Museum of Art with that of New York's Museum of Modern Art. I recently conducted a survey, polling my girlfriend's 6-year-old son and a group of his playmates. None of them had any trouble distinguishing between the two (museum) logos. Since most art collectors are college educated, I find it unlikely that they would be unable to discern between the two logos.

In her review of "Contemporary Realist Paintings from the People's Republic of China," the current exhibition at the museum, Ms. Curtis raised a question as to who wrote the copy for the wall-mounted biographies.

Had she asked, I would have told her that most of them were written by Maura Kenoe, an expert on Chinese art currently on the staff of New York's Metropolitan Museum. Ms. Curtis complained that the biographies were not in the context of her "art world."

Context is something Ms. Curtis could learn more about, as she consistently disregards the relative resources of the institutions displaying the exhibits she reviews. During her tenure as a critic in Orange County, she has frequently measured the visual art institutions of the county according to standards befitting America's largest and most moneyed museums.

As a result, she has left the general public with the erroneous impression that institutions like the Irvine Fine Arts Center, the Muckenthaler Cultural Arts Center and the Laguna Art Museum are failing miserably, when in actuality they are doing quite well, compared to organizations of similar means. And for a brand new museum with a modest budget, the Modern Museum of Art is doing quite well also.

But if I could somehow find a genie who would grant three wishes, I would wish we had the resources to produce extensive catalogues for every exhibition so I could have published the entire 3,000-word essay I wrote about the current exhibition rather than the 750-word essay Ms. Curtis rebuked for being too short. And I would wish we had the staff to produce the more extensive educational offerings for each exhibition she finds missing. But, being realistic, I know such things will come with time.

My third wish would be a big one: I would wish that Ms. Curtis would stop dwelling on negatives, would recognize Orange County as a burgeoning cultural center, would become an advocate for the visual art organizations of the community encouraging the general public to support them, and would focus her writing skills on interpreting and explaining art.

But, again, being a realist, I know that most genies would probably find my last wish a bit much to ask for. And, after all, as the saying goes, you can't teach an old dog new tricks.

MIKE McGEE

Curator

Modern Museum of Art

Santa Ana

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