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The Imperfect Pursuit of Collections

Art: LACMA had high hopes for the Smookes' holdings, but they're up for auction, illustrating public museums' difficult relationship with private collectors.


New York's fall auction season will open tonight with a mega-sale of modern art from the estate of Los Angeles collectors Nathan and Marion Smooke--and a burning question.

Why are these artworks going on the block?

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art put considerable effort and resources into staging a major exhibition of the Smooke collection and publishing a catalog on it in 1987. Nathan Smooke, an industrial real estate developer, served on the museum's board of trustees until his death in 1991. One of his three sons, Los Angeles attorney Michael Smooke, succeeded him on the board and is still a LACMA trustee. All of which had led to hopes, if not expectations, that the collection would end up at the Wilshire Boulevard institution. But after Marion Smooke's death, in March, art merchants came calling.

The deep-pocketed Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg auction house snagged the Smooke collection with a hefty guarantee. Phillips will only say that the sale "is expected to exceed $100 million," but sources close to the deal peg the guarantee at somewhere between $180 million and $200 million.

That kind of money may largely explain why the Smookes' heirs are not giving away the collection. But the sale also raises vexing questions about policies and practices regarding exhibitions of private collections at public museums, an area fraught with conflicts of interest.

Charged with building collections but rarely endowed with sufficient acquisition funds, museums cultivate relationships with collectors and solicit their support. Collectors, in turn, seek professional advice from museum curators, and crave the scholarly prestige and validation that museums offer. When the courtship is sealed with a major exhibition of the collection, some sort of marriage is expected to follow.

But if a commitment isn't made before the exhibition, the collector is likely to keep the artworks, move on to another suitor or cash in--with the museum's imprimatur. Left in the lurch, the museum may be criticized both for failing to land the collection and for wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars on a show calculated to flatter the collector.

These issues blow up from time to time all across the country. The specter of a private collector using a public museum loomed particularly large at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999, when it presented "Sensation." The museum was only looking for a box-office hit, not donated artworks, when it booked the show of cutting-edge contemporary art from the collection of British advertising executive Charles Saatchi. But a flap over threatened censorship escalated into a broader ethical controversy when it was revealed that Saatchi had been given curatorial control of the show. Making matters worse, Saatchi's activity in the marketplace and Christie's sponsorship of the show led to fears that the artworks would go on the block at prices inflated by the exhibition.

So far, that hasn't happened, but there is still no universal art-museum policy about exhibiting private collections.

Even as the Smookes' Matisses, Degases, Brancusis, Picassos, Legers, Modiglianis and Giacomettis await their fate in New York, LACMA is presenting a large exhibition of contemporary art from the holdings of another trustee, Eli Broad, and his wife, Edythe. Like the Smookes, the Broads have not given or promised their collections to LACMA. To longtime museum watchers, "Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art From the Broad Collections" is all too reminiscent of "Degas to Picasso: Modern Masters From the Smooke Collection," presented in 1987.

Andrea Rich, who became president of LACMA in 1995 and assumed the directorship as well in 1999, defends the practice of showing private collections--but only under certain conditions. The quality of the art must measure up to the museum's standards, she said. The collector must be "a member of the museum's extended family" who has contributed artworks or financial support, and the museum must have complete curatorial control of the exhibition and catalog. If those criteria are met, private collections can help the museum fulfill one of its roles, which is "to make available to the public things they might not see were it not for the exhibition," she said.

Providing a public forum is also "a way the museum might express its desire in the long run to be the permanent home and shepherd of the collection," she said. "It's one of the mechanisms by which museums get great collections, by building these relationships." Planning exhibitions and negotiating gifts are entirely separate matters at LACMA, she insists.

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