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Code breaker for a Scripps College museum exhibition

The Williamson Gallery's partnership with an art dealer on 'Clay's Tectonic Shift' conflicts with an ethics code against such a practice. The gallery says it retained full control over decisions.

January 14, 2012|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • A work by Peter Voulkos from the exhibition.
A work by Peter Voulkos from the exhibition. (Scripps College / Ruth Chandler…)

The museum at Scripps College in Claremont enlisted a Los Angeles art dealer as co-curator of a Getty-funded Pacific Standard Time exhibition, violating a prominent ethics code that warns museums against allowing commercial interests to shepherd shows in nonprofit venues.

"Clay's Tectonic Shift: John Mason, Ken Price and Peter Voulkos, 1956-1968" focuses on three artists credited with breakthroughs that transformed pottery from a studio craft to a sculptural form widely appreciated as fine art. The work of the trio being highlighted at Scripps' Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery has been cited as perhaps the first movement in postwar L.A. art to win renown in the wider world.

Frank Lloyd, a ceramics dealer and the show's co-curator, is a well-known expert in the field who has worked closely with all three artists while mounting 12 shows of their work since 1998 at his Frank Lloyd Gallery in Santa Monica's Bergamot Station. A 13th, entitled "Peter Voulkos in L.A.: Time Capsule," opens Saturday, and 13 of the 24 works for sale are by the three artists being highlighted concurrently at Scripps College.

The museum's decision to name a dealer as guest curator goes against the 2009 Ethics Code for Curators published by the American Assn. of Museums (AAM), a leading national professional organization. Under the heading, "conflicts of interest," it says, "Curators or guest curators may not be active dealers in the museum's areas of interest…. Guest curators are expected to operate within the same institutional guidelines that govern the behavior of staff curators in the areas of personal collecting and dealing."

Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A., 1945-1980 is a region-wide effort spearheaded and partly funded by grants from the J. Paul Getty Trust, aimed at underscoring the importance of Southern California art during that period. The ceramics show, which opens Jan. 21 at the Claremont college museum, was funded with two Getty Foundation grants totaling $265,000.

The 25 works on display at Scripps include a 5-foot-tall stoneware piece by Mason from Lloyd's personal collection. Lloyd is the dealer representing the estate of Voulkos, who died in 2002, and he also sells works by Price. Until last year, he said, he was Mason's dealer for 16 years.

Lloyd said that he wasn't aware of the museum-world ethics guidelines that were crossed when he was appointed as co-curator of "Clay's Tectonic Shift."

He said his motivation wasn't to boost sales at his gallery, but to help the Williamson Gallery put an informed, educationally sound spotlight on a piece of Los Angeles art history. "What I was able to contribute to the project was a tremendous amount of research and scholarship and experience. The objectives [of the show] are extremely honorable, and beyond reproach," he said.

The Getty made two grants to Scripps for the exhibition: $175,000 in 2008 for planning the show, and $90,000 in 2009 for its execution and a 232-page catalog whose five essays include one by Lloyd.

Julie Jaskol, a Getty spokeswoman, said that it wasn't aware of Lloyd's involvement at the time of the first grant, and that he only was "listed as an essayist" when the second grant was made in 2009. The Getty didn't learn he would be co-curator until 2010, she said, in "a routine progress report" on the exhibition.

Jaskol said Getty officials do not object. "We continue to have confidence in the [Williamson Gallery] director and her staff to put together the team with the right expertise."

Mary MacNaughton, director of the Williamson Gallery, said that she and gallery manager Kirk Delman, the show's other curator, had discussed whether it was OK to involve an art dealer as co-curator, and concluded that "of all the people we could go to for information and detailed knowledge of the artists' work, there was no better source than Frank Lloyd. He's a very serious scholar, as well as a dealer."

She said that during the first six months of his involvement, Lloyd served as an advisor whose knowledge and contacts helped the gallery secure loans of artworks for the show, which includes works from nine public and 10 private collections. But at a certain point, "we thought that we should recognize the tremendous contribution he made to our project" by naming him the exhibition's co-curator.

While choosing the works for a show is commonly considered to be a key facet of curatorial work, MacNaughton said that Lloyd "did not at any time tell us what direction the exhibition should take, or which works should be included."

Ellen Endslow, who chairs the AAM's curators committee, which wrote the curatorial ethics code, said that the ban on dealers is there "because it may look as if [dealers] are using the museum to promote their personal business interests." However, the code is voluntary and not enforceable.

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