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Art Moralists

Give the New Museum a break.

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When it was announced back in October that the New Museum would showcase billionaire mega-collector Dakis Joannou’s collection of contemporary art—which includes Maurizio Cattelan, Jeff Koons, Terence Koh, and Urs Fischer—and that it would be curated by Koons (who has 40 works in the collection), the art world cringed at the insiderness of it all. Bloggers, particularly Modern Art Notes’s Tyler Green, harped on its ethics. Then an A-1 Times story last week cited a belief among critics that the museum now maintains “a dizzyingly insular circle of art world insiders.”

The circle looks something like this: Joannou, a New Museum trustee, is friendly with Lisa Phillips, the museum’s director. Her curator, Massimiliano Gioni, has worked previously with Joannou, and he oversaw the current Urs Fischer show. Fischer has curated shows for Joannou; Joannou also owns Fischer’s work. Fischer’s dealer is Gavin Brown, who also represents Elizabeth Peyton, Jeremy Deller, and Steven Shearer, all of whom have had shows at the museum in the last two years. Add in Koons, and the whole thing can seem less like a public-spirited museum than a private club.

I like that the art world isn’t regulated. I have seen Joannou’s collection, and it is incredible. And despite the way it looks, I think in the end the whole deal is for the best—given the state of the art world. As it is, private collectors now have far better collections of contemporary art than places like MoMA or the Whitney. The art boom simply made new art too expensive for institutions, and the slump of the last year hasn’t made the situation any better: Unlike gallery sales, museum donations haven’t rebounded. Museums are in deep trouble, and will be for a while.

So museums have to be creative. Showing the Joannou collection not only will be a benefit to audiences; doing it this way takes on the idea of showing private collections. But the moralizing is a bit much. Remember, one of MoMA’s opening shows in 2005 was of the UBS collection. What’s more, the Joannou collection isn’t just usual suspects; it is all about sex, death, shit, the Oedipus complex, and materiality of the strangest sort. It includes artists you’ve never heard of, which was the New Museum’s original mission. And Koons, frankly, is an interesting choice as curator.

The museum needs to depend less on Gavin Brown. Still remember that MoMA has shown many Marian Goodman Gallery artists over the last decade. This happens. If anything, MoMA or the Whitney should be blamed for not showing Fischer.

Money has been the root of a lot of confusion and sermonizing in the art world lately. What the New Museum has done has not only pushed boundaries but also buttons. In the end, though, let’s just see the show. Then we’ll decide.

Have good intel? Send tips to intel@nymag.com.


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