More than ever it seems museums are acting as middlemen for galleries.
While looking around the David Zwirner booth in Miami this past December, gallery staff directed one collector to visit MoMA. The Isa Genzken work she was interested in had already been purchased, but she was in luck! The gallery had loaned similar works to MoMA and they would be available, she was told, after the close of the exhibition. David Zwirner takes up real estate on 19th and 20th street, but with MoMA it seems they’ve gained an additional showroom up on 53rd.
Galleries and museums have sharing their wares for some time—this is nothing new—but the commercial trade-off has rarely been so blatant. I went out to Philadelphia for Yinka Shonibare’s solo exhibition at the Barnes Foundation and James Cohan (who represents Shonibare) was there discussing how the artist’s works were for sale. As it was explained to me, Shonibare’s sculptures “Magic Ladders I, II, and III” (2013) were commissioned by the Barnes and funded in-part by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. They won’t be staying there long: the Barnes does not collect new or contemporary work. Thus, the potential sale. That income would help cover the museum’s production costs, but otherwise it would not receive any direct profit.
It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that museums are so closely involved with galleries. Whether that museum’s a showroom or a participant in the production of a work that’ll end up on the market, a curator’s concerns are greater than simply putting on a good show. Some blame lies with museums: When planning blockbuster shows with shipping and production costs through the roof, figuring out how to cover big budgets becomes one of the more important parts of the curatorial process. Unless museums roll back their desires for big and pricey exhibitions, I’m sure the thin line between galleries and museums will continue to erode.
A sign of what’s to come might be found over Hauser & Wirth on 19th street, where Paul Schimmel, former curator at MoCA, has curated an historical show of works from the collection of dealer Reinhard Onnasch. (He’s currently working behind-the-scenes with Hauser & Wirth on a forthcoming Los Angeles outpost where he’ll be a full partner with the gallery.)
“In Los Angeles, only rock stars and movie stars get this big of a turnout,” Schimmel gave as an opener during a tour of the show. It was the first of many subtle remarks that snubbed his former profession. Schimmel dropped that, in his opinion, “Dealers are even crazier than museum people when it comes to making art look right.” I took that as a positive trait; like so many dealers, curators tend to be romanced by their art, and Schimmel’s no different. Throughout the tour, his wide-eyed love for art was apparent. “Beautiful,” “clever,” and “juicy” were words he used to describe Cy Twombly, Jim Dine, and Claes Oldenburg, respectively.
Based on Schimmel’s remarks, it seems he’s made the right decision to leave museums for galleries. In this role, he’ll act as a middleman once more, but this time with perhaps more freedom and a larger budget. What a strange world this art world has become.