Why do art museums present vanity exhibitions? Packing up paintings and sculptures from a private collector's living room and hauling them over to the museum's public galleries for a temporary display is about as low-grade a curatorial enterprise as can be imagined. The vision required is limited, if not nonexistent.
The visitor experience is rarely satisfying. At a vanity show, exploring an artist's specific talents or a group of artists' larger cultural meaning is secondary. Focus is shifted to the collector's aptitude. The leading question viewers debate is simply: How skillful has this shopper been? Did he buy great things? Did he assemble them in interesting ways? What will become of the collection? Personal consumption becomes the primary issue.
Yet, for all their vapidness, private collection vanity exhibitions appear to be proliferating at America's art museums. In the last two weeks, three have turned up at three major institutions.
On Saturday, the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens unveiled "Beauty and Power: Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes From the Peter Marino Collection" (Marino is a New York society decorator). Last week the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened its snazzy new Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion with "Eye for the Sensual: Selections From the Resnick Collection," featuring a diverse array of the benefactors' varied holdings — 18th century Rococo painting, 19th century British Neoclassical sculpture, early 20th century Art Deco furniture, etc.
Two weeks earlier it was "Gray Collection: Seven Centuries of Art" at the Art Institute of Chicago. The show surveys international drawings owned by a local couple who run a prominent Modern art gallery.
Such presentations weaken art museums. Vanity shows undercut the distinctive reason the places exist.
The United States is unusual in having forged a vibrant nonprofit sector whose aim is different from the commercial and government sectors that other nations maintain. Business and government respond to majority will first; nonprofits were invented as an avenue for minority interests to flourish.
Last I looked, shopping was not a minority interest. Nonprofits, free of voters or stockholders, are meant to provide an alternative: New or untried ideas, even unpopular ones, might be knocked around.
The government, knowing that new ideas don't always fare well when instant popularity is a requirement, helps by removing the tax burden from museums. And tax breaks also go to businesses and individuals that chip in.
Some art museums, most notably the Museum of Modern Art, have a written policy that forbids showing private collections. But others make vanity shows a regular feature.
Perhaps the nation's most active vanity venue is the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where no fewer than seven have been displayed since 2007. But LACMA has turned over its galleries to single private collections many times: Hammer, Smooke, Broad and now Resnick (all museum trustees). Two seasons ago, actor Cheech Marin's Chicano art collection was also shown.
Sometimes these shows raise a ruckus.
A big one came in 1999, when the Brooklyn Museum showed the contemporary collection held by British advertising magnate Charles Saatchi, who helped put Margaret Thatcher into the prime minister's job 20 years before. Saatchi also acted as the show's curator and major funder, raising questions of conflict of interest. Why was a nonprofit art museum subsidizing the activities of a wealthy private individual — especially one whose controversial habit of buying and selling recent art was well known?
Last spring a noisy storm swirled around the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, where selections from a European trustee's collection of recent blue-chip art filled the galleries. Eyebrows also rose in Boston in 2005 with successive exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, the first a show of 16 classic cars owned by fashion designer Ralph Lauren, the second a heterogeneous array — marine paintings, wine bottles, guns, classical sculpture, early Modern paintings, even a couple of sailing yachts moored on the museum's front lawn — owned by honorary trustee William I. Koch. Like Saatchi, Koch helped underwrite his show.
Those dust-ups can generate withering publicity for their institutions. A Boston Globe critic dismissed the Koch collection show, titled "Things I Love," as "narcissistic," "smug and even insulting." Yachts on the art museum lawn drew plenty of controversial media attention.
Of course, most coverage spelled the museum's name right, which seemed to be the goal. But publicity can boomerang, as Brooklyn found out when then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani tried to shut down the suddenly high-profile museum because he disliked a painting in the show.