Exhibiting ethics easier said than done

Post-'Sensation' guidelines prove a thorney problem for museums



The scene was a panel discussion at last week's annual conference of the American Association of Museums in Baltimore.

The topic was ethics, specifically the ethics of exhibiting artworks owned by private collectors.

The panel was to discuss the findings of a task force charged with drawing up guidelines to help museums work toward "transparency" -- in other words, making the behind-the-scenes negotiations of exhibition financing more open to the public.

The irony was that no one, at least no one involved with the task force, wanted to talk about the subject in any but the vaguest generalities.

The discussion was anything but transparent. And the museum association missed a great opportunity for substantive and open discussion about an important topic with several hundred of its members.

The issue matters: Museums are under incessant pressure to attract larger crowds while competing for attention with a seemingly endless spectrum of amusement venues. They simultaneously juggle roles as collectors, conservators, educators, entertainers, cultural historians and story tellers.

Little wonder that they are beset by the temptation to do whatever it takes to pay for increasingly large and expensive exhibits -- often featuring artworks owned by wealthy private collectors that the institutions may hope to receive later as gifts.

"There are great pressures on all nonprofits, including museums, for more, bigger, better," said Edward H. Able Jr., AAM president, in an interview.

"We have tremendous demands on us to serve the public. And these demands are forcing us to move faster and to be more innovative in developing our resource base. And so it has been a matter of concern that we do our work thoughtfully."

Issues of `Sensation'

Last fall, the subject attracted national attention when the Brooklyn Museum of Art presented "Sensation," an exhibit of contemporary British art owned by collector Charles Saatchi. The show enraged New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani because it included a painting by Chris Ofili of the Virgin Mary with one breast made out of elephant dung. The museum and the mayor wound up in court over the mayor's threats to punish the BMA by eliminating the city's financial support.

But what began as a debate about censorship became a debate about ethics. Depositions and testimony in the Brooklyn case showed the heavy influence of commerce on art. The court case revealed that:

Saatchi, who stood to gain financially from the publicity that would surely accompany the exhibition, had been asked by the museum for money to pay for the exhibit.

Christie's auction house, and other art dealers who had a commercial interest in the works that were displayed, also provided financial support for the exhibit.

The museum had granted Saatchi considerable say into how the exhibit would be mounted.

The controversy prompted intense debate within the art community over what does and does not represent conflicts of interest for museums.

There's no question that museums perform a public service by seeking out private collections and providing venues in which the public can view them. In the process, museums may go out of their way to flatter the collectors. If the National Gallery had not coveted Baltimore County collectors Robert and Jane Meyerhoff's enormous collection of works by Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein, it might not have presented it in a 1996 exhibit. But if the museum had not organized the exhibit, only those lucky few who received invitations to the Meyerhoffs' home would have had the chance to view the collection.

Are works displayed because they have genuine merit, or to persuade collectors to make a bequest? What happens if the collector makes demands about how the collection is presented? Where is the line between diplomatic give-and-take between museum and art owner -- and relinquishing intellectual control of an exhibition?

Institutions have varying strategies for dealing with these potential ethical dilemmas. Some will only display privately held objects that already have been promised to the institution. Others request that the owners agree not to sell the art for a specific time after the exhibition. Nonetheless, there are no guidelines that spell out how to avoid the ethical pitfalls that may arise when paying for and presenting privately held art.

That is what the AAM task force seeks to address.

"We have a code of ethics, but they don't apply directly to issues of funding exhibitions," Able said in an interview. "Now we want to offer guidelines that apply specifically to the issues of exhibition funding. We are asking, `Is this a conflict of interest? If so, how do you deal with it?' "

Task force's job

The AAM is a 94-year-old national organization with 3,000 institutional members ranging from aquariums and zoos to art museums and historical societies. It also has an individual membership of 11,000 individual museum professionals.

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