The money behind the exhibits


Brooklyn Museum of Art's 'Sensation' controversy raises troubling questions about how art shows are funded.

November 07, 1999|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

Like universities, symphony orchestras and theaters, art museums depend upon donors to help defray the costs of running their institutions, whether they're paying the heat bills or presenting an exhibition. But which donors are considered acceptable? What do they want in return? When does quid pro quo become far too much?

Questions like these suddenly are in the spotlight, thrust there by the flap over the financing of "Sensation," the controversial exhibition of British art on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. But most museum professionals -- while differing on many aspects of the debate -- agree that the questions raised by the Brooklyn affair are ever-present in the world of nonprofit cultural institutions.

"These are issues that come up regularly, that people think about in the museum world," says Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. "As times change, as financing changes, different issues arise, and it's important to always have before you what your set of values is -- to constantly assess that you are meeting these values."

Critics of the Brooklyn Museum say that its director, Arnold Lehman, overstepped ethical boundaries by soliciting funds for the show from companies and individuals who have a direct commercial interest in the artworks on display.

Part of the debate focuses on the content of the Brooklyn show itself: It is drawn entirely from the private collection of Charles Saatchi, an advertising magnate and powerful art patron.

In addition, the Brooklyn Museum accepted a pledge of $160,000 from Saatchi himself; solicited donations of $10,000 each from art dealers; accepted $50,000 in return for considerations including unlimited access to the museum for social events to Christie's auction house, which previously has sold works from Saatchi's collection.

"The idea of a major museum in a major city like New York presenting an exhibition of a single collector -- especially a high-profile collector -- is a big issue. I see it as less of a problem for a smaller museum, which may have a reason to cultivate a local collector. I think the history of Saatchi as a kind of trafficker of objects -- he has sold off whole series of art when he has tired of them -- means the [Brooklyn Museum] has entered dangerous territory," says Gary Sangster, director of The Contemporary of Baltimore. "It's not a legal question. It is a question of appearances and propriety."

No easy directions

But there is no "how-to" book for exhibition funding. As government support of the arts has dwindled in the last decade, and as expenses have gone up, museums have been forced increasingly to be inventive when raising money. And many museum professionals, while they may not agree with the decisions made at the Brooklyn Museum, say that they are familiar with the kinds of pressures faced by Brooklyn administrators.

Lehman, reluctant to grant interviews while the controversy has raged, defended his actions in an interview with the New York Times, saying commercial concerns were far from his mind while planning the exhibition. "Corporations are giving money for marketing purposes, for publicity purposes, for promotional purposes, for whatever reason is ultimately going to support their business and that's nothing to be ashamed of," he said.

When the funding arrangements at the Brooklyn Museum were made public, "a little bit of a chill went down my spine," says Joy Heyrman, director of development at the Walters Art Gallery. "There was a ring of familiarity in the kinds of connections that had been made between the project and potential sponsors. What we in museums do is look for connections and even self-interest in potential donors."

She means that when looking for sponsors, museums look first for corporations or individuals who already have some connection to the art. To varying degrees, that connection may be financial.

"You might get an international corporation to support an exhibition of art from its originating country -- you see that a lot at the National Gallery," she says. "Or you see companies with business interests in those other countries supporting the show."

For example, the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York is presenting an exhibition featuring the work of Charles and Ray Eames. "It is sponsored by Herman Miller Inc., which manufactures Eames furniture and the textile manufacturer that makes and sells the textiles," says Brenda Richardson, the former deputy director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, who now is an independent curator.

"That doesn't mean that the exhibition was done to enrich the manufacturers. It was done because the Eameses were important artists, and then they set out to find sponsors who have a reason to sponsor the show."

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