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Huntington Library's bronze exhibit from Peter Marino raises issue of single-collector shows

Museum officials say such collections are an opportunity to bring quality art to the public. Some critics say such exhibits are limited by a collector's tastes while possibly boosting a collection's value because of its association with a museum.

October 03, 2010|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times

When museum officials explain why they're bringing a new show of one man's bronzes to the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens they cite several high-minded reasons.

It offers a rare glimpse of top-quality objects normally locked away in an Upper East Side flat, they say. It will bring scholarly attention to brilliant but below-the-radar artists such as the Florentine sculptor Giovanni Battista Foggini, and shed light on the Huntington's own notable bronze collection.

Finally, Huntington staffers maintain, "Beauty and Power: Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes from the Peter Marino Collection" will illuminate the tastes of an intriguing individual with an oversize personality, the New York architect Peter Marino.

The one factor that officials say played no role in their decision whether to host "Beauty and Power" is one that's increasingly raised as a concern by art critics. Namely, whether a museum can retain its curatorial independence over temporary exhibitions of works drawn from a single private collection, particularly if the museum has been, or may become, a beneficiary of that collector's largesse. A related issue is whether the museum's seal of approval could affect the value of the objects if they ever were sold.

In recent years, critics have showered harsh words on single-collector shows. In a February 2008 review headlined "Flattering the Art, or Just the Collector?" Washington Post critic Blake Gopnik chastised the National Gallery of Art for hosting "Bronze and Boxwood: Renaissance Masterpieces From the Robert H. Smith Collection."

"A show that relies only on the objects that happen to have ended up in one collector's hands can't be counted on to give its visitors anything close to a definitive view of its subject — if it even has one," Gopnik wrote.

Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight, reviewing an exhibition of works owned by actor-comic Cheech Marin at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in July 2008, wrote that "the negatives" of public art museums exhibiting private collections "so far outweigh the positives that such shows hurt, rather than help, a museum's mission."

These criticisms are similar to those leveled at art museums built to house a single collector's works, one of which, Inhotim Center for Contemporary Art, constructed for a Brazilian mining tycoon, was dubbed "the world's most expensive MySpace" by Marc Glimcher, president of New York's PaceWildenstein gallery.

Yet other single-donor shows have earned praise in recent years. So did the celebrity dual-donor show "Telling Stories," an exhibition of Norman Rockwell paintings owned by filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg that ran last summer at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

Catherine Hess, the Huntington's chief curator of European art and the exhibition's organizer, said that "Beauty and Power," which opened at the Wallace Collection in London last spring under the supervision of its academic director Jeremy Warren, meets a high, multifaceted curatorial standard.

"There has to be a real compelling reason to show a group of objects to the public beyond who collected them," Hess said. "There has to be a story to be told."

While Hess said she's "not naïve" about the concerns raised over single-collector exhibitions, she suggested that they're not relevant to "Beauty and Power."

"Mr. Marino has no connection to the institution, and we accepted this show on its own merits," she said. "What happens with the price of his objects is not a concern of ours. It's not at all a reason for doing it or not doing it."

Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, said that the objection to single-collector shows "seems to be a recent phenomenon that's related to the heightened speculation" in the contemporary art market of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Perceptions that such speculation had led to wildly inflated prices and critical hype rebounded on exhibitions like "Sensation," a show of young British artists from the collection of ad agency mogul and international bon vivant Charles Saatchi.

But Govan and other museum officials say that those concerns are less applicable to centuries-old work with well-established provenances, whose values have been tested repeatedly on the open market.

Govan said that in deciding whether to stage a single-collector exhibition, LACMA applies several criteria, including that the collection should be of "unusual quality" and not duplicate the museum's existing holdings and that LACMA has "control over final decisions and presentations."

Those conditions, he said, are met by the just-opened "Eye for the Sensual: Selections from the Resnick Collection," an exhibition of more than 100 paintings, sculptures and decorative arts belonging to Lynda and Stewart Resnick, longtime LACMA patrons whose $45 million donation funded the new Renzo Piano-designed, 45,000-square-foot Resnick Pavilion, where the exhibition is being shown.

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