Public museums need a new way of working with collectors
Source:The Art Newspaper Author:Chris Dercon Date: 2015-12-01 Size:
The purpose of the public museum is to ensure the long-term availability and display of art. Its mission is to create an environment that encourages engagement for ……

Fondation Louis Vuitton. Photo courtesy of Hélène Meunier

The purpose of the public museum is to ensure the long-term availability and display of art. Its mission is to create an environment that encourages engagement for the largest audience possible. Consequently, the core responsibility of those in charge of public collections is education. Today, education also means making a judgement—a judgement between the portion of contemporary artistic production that parallels the world of luxury goods and the achievements that truly shape culture.

The public museum of today does not exist in a world of its own. It has become one of many environments that comprise a much wider museological project, because of the increasing number of private galleries that call themselves museums, the huge rise in private capital invested in art and the reduction of financial support fr om the state.

Private collectors make idiosyncratic choices: they collect the good and the bad, which is a central feature at their very heart. Many can also afford purchases that are beyond the reach of public institutions. Nonetheless, we public museums cannot afford to give up to them the production of memory and the writing of art history.

What to collect?

So what criteria should be weighed when deciding on the acquisition of a work by a public museum? We cannot afford to look at objects in terms of a return on investment, as private collectors can. In this way, public museums are an antidote, not a supplement, to private collections.

At least until recently, most visitors to public museums did not think about works of art as objects that could be privately owned but as expressions of a culture as a whole. Paradoxically, as we have seen in recent years at the Tate, fewer and fewer visitors to public museums are interested in or even aware of the difference between a display of our collection and an exhibition of loans: in other words, people are not interested in the distinction between exclusive property and public goods.

The current expansion of the “private museum” phenomenon can also be explained by the way some new pseudo-philanthropists and other risk-based benefactors (including many art dealers) are trying to gain more stature in order to ultimately increase their control over the art market.

Some private museums (whose architecture often reflects the ambitions of their founders) could be seen as the ultimate manifestations of the production of spectacle. Their operators have realised that a new cultural praxis may not necessarily need to rely on many years of experience or historically constructed memory. Moreover, they realise that they can encourage culture to look and feel more like consumerism. And how better to meet this objective than by transposing the model of cultural production into the context of “an architectural event”? It is clear that in an area construed as “a spectacular architectural space”, visual art can risk being experienced as a secondary compensation.

Of course, there are some private collectors who are reluctant to build their own museums, although they are increasingly rare. They are aware of the complexities of expanded investment and the difficult conditions of such a long-term project. Instead, some collectors—such as Anthony d’Offay, Ingvild Goetz, Dimitris Daskalopoulos or Harald Falckenberg—seek to create partnerships with the public sector. And public museums recognise the benefits of exploring these forms of public-private partnership.

Finally, to complicate the situation somewhat, the private museum often takes on the role of the failing public cultural sector in cities and regions wh ere public museums are absent. I refer to recent initiatives in Istanbul, Jeddah, Beirut, Delhi and Shanghai, in which individuals and private organisations create private museums in the absence of, or as an alternative to, a government cultural axis. This model, even when considered with all the usual precautions, is an example that seems to take the production of memory seriously.

More generally, collectors are beginning to understand that the proper functioning of their own systems and the pragmatic approach to the economic parameters that some of them employ (such as profitability, efficiency of costs, short-term actions and strategies, endless accumulation and expansion of a directionless diversity, discretion about information regarding their assets and costs, the impersonal selection and acquisitions carried out by advisers, insider trading and other aggressive operations) amount to pale imitations of normal museum activities. Moreover, many new and inexperienced collectors seem particularly reluctant to accept (and this is an effect of the art market and global capital flows) that owning contemporary art is, for the most part, a long-term investment, bringing little or no short-term gain.

The private sector almost always adheres to widely differing priorities from those of public institutions. It often prefers the production of cultural industry, which, rather than aspiring to sustainability, is characterised by short-term horizons and short-term resources, specialisation and fads. This production is governed by subjective and economic decisions that ultimately lead to more fragmentation, but also to a lack of quality in artistic production. Artists produce more on request, while art criticism has become a kind of creation ex nihilo.

Public recognition

There is another corresponding paradox: as there are more private capital owners who invest in art, so serious collectors increasingly desire public or critical recognition of what they do. Perhaps I should say that they desire gratitude, not only from their peers and insiders in the art world, but also from a broader audience.

I feel that we must establish new standards for co-operation between private collectors and public museums. And those relationships cannot be based only on gratitude and good faith. The collector who works with a public museum must accept the museum as a place of symbolic value – in the long term – for art. The museums should only approach private collectors who share this conviction. The public museum should cater to the private collector who not only supports the arts and artists but also strengthens the broader culture of public museums. It is this combination of efforts that produces culture.

I want to emphasise that co-operation between public museums and private collectors is fundamentally healthy and constructive. There have been—and still are—many private collectors to whom we are grateful. Nevertheless, we must accept that a division exists between the interests of some private collectors and public museums, between collecting and educating, between the different practices in art and different practices in museography.

Just as object-based art is rooted in a world of material production and manufacture, so the increasingly experiential art of today echoes our new, immaterial social systems and economic networks. We must accept that this will affect the future of public and private collections alike.

• A version of this paper was first presented at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, in June

[Editor] 张艳