David Ross on Hard Sell

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Over the New Year weekend, David Ross, former director of the Whitney Museum in New York and then the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, attached an interesting comment to my post from last week about museums selling off work from their permanent collections to stabilize their finances. Here’s most of what he had to say:

There is one more issue that no one seems to raise, regardless of which side of the issue is being argued. In my experience as an art museum director, the real deterrent should be simple humility — the assumption that acquisitions made in earnest by previous directors and/or curators should remain intact since the collection is the most important record of institutional direction and also functions as a significant historical index. Beyond this, all who have worked in art museums know that each curatorial generation reflects changing aesthetic priorities, and that none of us have access to an overarching truth. I would often ask myself, “how can I simply say that the judgements of previous directors were wrong and are now simply disposable?” For it is this accretion of decisions that produce the aura that is a museum’s reputation and constitutes such a large measure of its social value. Museums preserve not only objects, but the thinking that supports the decision that certain objects are worthy of perpetual conservation, study, and public display.

I understand what he means. Collections are a snapshot of the taste of their time, taste which may have been overtaken by later judgments but may still have something to tell us. Reputations are always being reassessed, big names deflated, neglected artists rediscovered, Guido Reni put in storage and Jacob Lawrence dusted off. One other dimension of that issue that I’ve been wondering about lately is the extent to which collections also reflect the economic ups and downs of previous eras. What I mean is that museums collect most heavily when trustees and other donors are prospering, so the taste of economic boom times is likely to be magnified in the collection. Ross should know. He acquired quite a bit during his three years at SFMOMA, years when the Bay area was booming, before the collapse of the dot.com bubble in 2001. Among many other things, Ross brought in nearly two dozen Ellsworth Kellys, Warhol’s Red Liz and Rauschenberg’s wicked Erased de Kooning Drawing.

Bliss to be a museum director in good times. Think of Sherman Lee, who came to the top of the Cleveland Museum of Art in the late 1950s just in time to enjoy the bequest of the local philanthropist Leonard C. Hanna. With Hanna’s money Lee brought to the Cleveland Poussin’s The Holy Family on the Steps, David’s Cupid and Psyche and truckloads of the Asian art that was his specialty. At the same time he famously didn’t acquire much of what was the contemporary art of his day, like Pop. Which is just another way of saying that in any given period a museum collection is a combination of available funds plus curator/director taste. I was back up at the Metropolitan Museum last week to catch the last day of the great exhibition devoted to the Chinese painter Wang Hui and took the opportunity to revisit the show of works that came into the Met’s collection during the years when Philippe de Montebello was director. It crossed my mind that it would be interesting some day to see the growth of that collection over the years charted against the fluctuations of the Dow.