Glenn Ligon, Untitled, (I Sell Shadow to Sustain the Substance) 2005, Neon sign and paint, Ed. 3/3, 7 1/2 x 192 1/2 Photo: AFC, Courtesy of the Rubell Collection
The Rubells state at the outset of the same introductory text that ‘We only show art we own.’ This means that all the art in 30 Americans is theirs. And thus, in a way, to criticize the art is to criticize the Rubells themselves. Of course it could be argued that this would not be against them, the Rubells, so much as against their tastes in art or their intellectual interests or their curatorial sensibility. But one can have such things without the intermediary of private ownership. This is what museums do, lest we forget: show a wide range of work, some which they own (and buy with both private and public funds), some of which they do not. And there is a rich history of people being ‘against’ museums, to which the genre of institutional critique itself attests.
Perhaps the problem arises then when institutional identity — The Rubell Collection — becomes so closely aligned with personal identity — the Rubell family — and the explicit fact of ownership becomes a revolving door between the two. In this sense, criticizing the Rubell’s collection might be as petty as criticizing someone’s choice of home décor; we do it of course, just not necessarily in public, because to criticize someone’s personal choices is tantamount to criticizing them. But to criticize the Rubell Collection as an institution is seen as petty as well, because as a publicly accessible but fundamentally private museum, it stands as a supremely generous gift, and so remains beyond reproach.
To add to this, typically collections donated to museums are fair game for critics, as are those simply exhibited in public institutions. Nobody had any problem pulling apart collector Charles Saatchi’s touring exhibition Sensation (AKA Dung Deal), in part due to the obvious economic gains the collection made after being housed in so many well known museums. The problem of critical engagement comes from the collector’s ownership of the exhibition space itself, which, as Jonathan T.D. Neil notes, takes on all the issues entailed in criticizing someone’s home after they’ve generously invited you to stay.