This week in growing New Museum controversy, The New York Times’ Deborah Sontag and Robin Pogrebin report on the museum’s plans to exhibit three floors worth of board member Dakis Joannou’s collection. The report is well worth the read and cites a number of experts offering up telling statements. Joannou, for instance, speaks in defense of the show, but says virtually nothing: “Sure I’m a trustee. Would it be different if I weren’t?” He tells The Times, “For me it’s a non-issue. I know who I am and what I’m doing.” That’s great of course, but it would be nice if he let the rest of us in on what it is he thinks he’s doing. To paraphrase his statement thus far, all he’s basically said is “So what? I’m a trustee.” We knew that already.
Further down page, the piece outlines guidelines established by international programs and ethics at the American Association of Museums.
The guidelines stress the potential for conflicts if board members become lenders, Mr. Ledbetter said. He offered these “cautionary flags”: a show devoted to one collector; a show in which the collector is a board member, donor or underwriter; a show in which the museum gives away or pools curatorial judgment with the collector.
“Any one of those things can be managed,” he said, “but when you layer them on top of each other, it's more complicated.”
The New Museum show raises all the association's cautionary flags except one: Mr. Joannou is not underwriting the exhibition. [Jeff Koons has been asked to curate the show.]
Ouch. The piece goes on to describe Museum Director Lisa Phillips as exasperated by the controversy before offering up her following quote: “We're not the first to do an exhibition of a private collection, and we won't be the last.”
But this statement propagates the assumption that precedent alone justifies a course of action, which isn’t necessarily an argument for anything. By that rationale, one might similarly argue that it’s okay for museums to purchase stolen national treasures, because it’s an institutional practice that exists elsewhere. As this example makes clear, the implication that a pre-existing practice suggests an ethically sound action, simply does not make sense in a lot of cases.
Taking a different line of attack over at The Art Newspaper, Tyler Green explains why museums exhibiting private collections are not only unethical, but possibly violate the letter of museum tax exemptions. According to Green, the US Internal Revenue Code mandates that tax-exempt organizations must not operate for the benefit of private interests. Certainly, the value of Dakis Joannou’s collection will increase due to its exhibition at the New Museum. How is this legal?
Given the ethical problems this show presents, I don’t see any reasonable cause for the museum to continue with its plans to launch the show this March. The last thing we need is more museum directors citing bad precedents as justification of ethically challenged shows.