NuMu Boo Boo?

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The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York/photo: Dean Kaufman

The New Museum in New York is getting spanked quite a bit lately for its upcoming show devoted to the contemporary art collection of one of its own trustees, the Greek billionaire Dakis Joannou.

Tyler Green on his blog Modern Art Notes has been out there aggressively over the last few weeks attacking the museum’s decision to devote a show entirely to work from a single private collection when the collector hasn’t promised the work to the museum as a gift. That’s the standard that some museums, notably the Modern and the Whitney in New York, use before they’ll agree to a single-collector exhibit. (The NuMu, by the way, doesn’t have a permanent collection to donate to.) The NuMu show, which will occupy all three floors of the museum when it opens in March, is particularly out there not only because of the trustee connection but because of how it’s being curated — not by any of the museum’s curators but by Jeff Koons, a personal friend of Joannou and an artist represented heavily in his collection.

The story notched up considerably on Wednesday when the New York Times put it on the front page in an article in which I could swear I heard the sound of journalistic pique. The reporters, Deborah Sontag and Robin Pogrebin, pointedly mentioned that New Museum Director Lisa Phillips spoke to them in a phone interview “that she limited to 20 minutes” and that an assistant to Jeff Koons told them that Koons was “too busy to talk to a reporter.”

As for Joannou, he appeared to do one of those Mediterranean shrug-things.

Sure, I am a trustee. Would it be different if I weren’t? Some people may think some things. For me, it’s a nonissue. I know who I am and what I am doing.

In case you’re coming to this debate from the outside — the main objection to single collector shows when the collections aren’t being gifted is that museum display validates a collector’s holdings in ways that can translate into higher market value, which the collector can then cash in on. True enough, though the problem can be mitigated by agreements that some museums insist on that the objects displayed within their galleries won’t be sold by the collector within an agreed period. NuMu Director Philips recently told The Art Newspaper that her museum’s board “has a policy against trustees lending a work of art if they are actively planning to sell it.” Which doesn’t sound like the same thing as a firm agreement on the part of the collector not to sell within a specified time, though maybe I’m missing something.

I’ve written about these single collector shows before and as I said then I don’t see the point of an absolutist position against them. Especially for smaller museums and museums outside the biggest cites, collector shows are a way to offer visitors a look at work the museum could never otherwise offer them. Obviously, the same could be said for a show in a larger museum. But those institutions, which are more likely to be on the circuit for big traveling shows, have other options for bringing in works from outside.

That said, I think the NuMu show was ill advised. It matters that Joannou is on their board. Who should it matter to? The NuMU. The last thing they want is to be thought of as an institution in service to the interests of one of their trustees. The issue is complicated by something the Times brought up yesterday on its ArtsBeat blog — that “critics of the museum consider it to be enmeshed in what can seem like a dizzyingly insular circle of art world insiders.” The blogpost goes on to describe a sort of artworld group hug among Joannou, NuMu curators and artists connected to the New York dealer Gavin Brown. As New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz pointed out on his blog yesterday, all this makes it somehow unsurprising that in just two years the NuMu has given solo shows to no fewer than four artists from Brown’s stable.

Gee, that’s alot.

People are wondering what impact all of this will have on the New Museum’s reputation. I don’t see what other impact it can have other than to make you wonder how often the work you see there just happens to be devoted to artists favored by the collectors and gallerists the NuMu curators pal around with? To put it another way, are shows at the New Museum essential exhibitions, or just the last word in product placement?