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Commercialization of museums

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Maybe this is of interest to city lovers (and skyscraper fanatics). Unknown to many outside the northeast, The Boston Museum of Fine Arts is one of the best art museums in the US (think metropolitan museum of art in NY) with an absolutely huge and amazing collection from mummies to Rembrandts. Over the past decade it has been making a lot of money by renting parts of its collection and having off- beat shows at the museum. Is this a bad thing, or are old time art critics a bunch of elitist prigs?

MFA's Monets: dicey deal?

Museum defends loan to Las Vegas gallery

By Geoff Edgers, Globe Staff, 1/25/2004

Past the slot machines and the blackjack tables, there they'll be: 21 Monet masterworks, including the hypnotic 1905 painting, "Water Lilies," right in the middle of the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas -- courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

In return for a payment of at least $1 million, the MFA has agreed to lend more than half of its Monet collection to a for-profit, Las Vegas gallery housed in the resplendent casino for a show opening this week.

The arrangement is unorthodox, but the MFA isn't apologizing. In early Feburary, MFA director Malcolm Rogers and a band of supporters will travel to the casino for a weekend entitled "Viva Monet!"

Yet, like many of Rogers's moves, the Vegas deal has touched off criticism that has dogged the museum director during his decade at the MFA. The protests spread when Rogers announced last week that he would open the MFA's galleries to fashion-designer Ralph Lauren's car collection for an exhibition next year. In the name of money-making, the critics say, Rogers is selling short the MFA's artistic standards.

"I will not buy that this is about non-elitism," said professor Selma Holo, who runs the University of Southern California's museum studies program and the USC Fisher Gallery and is considered an authority on museum issues. "This is about desperation and about making money, and nothing else."

For Rogers, the criticism has a familiar ring. He's been criticized for other pop-oriented exhibits like those for "Wallace and Gromit" and Herb Ritts. But Rogers, who brokered the loan to the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, said the museum isn't desperate. He noted that the MFA, which receives virtually no government support, must always be searching for new ways to make money, and broaden its audiences.

Sending the paintings to Las Vegas accomplishes both. "This is a win-win situation," Rogers said. "I think people are extraordinarily priggish and narrow-minded if they don't understand this." The MFA's supporters are so pleased with the Bellagio arrangement that during the first week in February, some of them will join the museum director on a trip to Las Vegas. A group of museum patrons, which might also include board members, will get a private tour of the Bellagio's botanical garden, gather for dinner at the Nectar restaurant, and take in Cirque du Soleil's "O." On Friday afternoon, with Rogers leading the way, they will walk through the Bellagio's gallery."Clearly, museums have always been very conservative institutions and we're trying to make them less conservative by revealing beauty in unexpected places," said Rogers. "Las Vegas is an unexpected place. Let us send beautiful things there. Let us send them art." The view at the MFA -- where board members and curator George Shackelford said there was no dissent about the deal -- is a far cry from that being expressed by art historians. They've hammered Rogers throughout his decade in Boston, even as his shows pumped the once stagnant MFA with money and higher ticket sales. But a museum, his critics argue, is about more than numbers. The deal the MFA has made with the Bellagio sets a disturbing precedent, they said. Is the MFA's art available to the highest bidder? Should works at a nonprofit institution be sent to a private, profit-making gallery run by art dealers?

"This seems to me to be crossing the line," said Ivan Gaskell, a longtime critic of Rogers who is curator of paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts at the Harvard University Art Museums. "What's to stop them from renting out the rest of the collection and hanging nothing but Herb Ritts photographs?"

Gaskell was referring to the MFA's practice of programming nontraditional shows under Rogers. Those include the 1996 exhibition devoted to Ritts, the late photographer whose show featured portraits of Madonna, Dustin Hoffman, and a series of nude female torsos. In 1998, the MFA held a "Wallace and Gromit" exhibition, featuring short films, production sets, and storyboards of the popular animated figures. In 2000, the museum turned heads with "Dangerous Curves: Art of the Guitar," a show that included guitars once owned by John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix and an audio tour narrated by James Taylor.

"Why is it acceptable to exhibit a beautifully designed kitchen chair in a museum and not acceptable to exhibit a beautifully designed car?" Rogers countered. "The critics have to answer that."

William Pounds, a former chairman of the board of trustees, acknowledged he initially felt uneasy about the guitar show. Then he saw the people streaming into the museum, many of them, he believed, for the first time.

"It seems to me that if we run the museums only for the folks who already enjoy them, we limit the benefits of what we own for the chosen few," Pounds said.

Rogers said it is that same desire, to show art to people who don't typically go to museums, driving the decision to bring in 15 of Lauren's automobiles, including a 1938 Bugatti.

He said that also motivated much of the Las Vegas decision. There has been an effort to bring in more high art to offset the schmaltzy glitz of the Strip in recent years. Casino owner Steve Wynn, a well- known art collector, originally opened the Bellagio Gallery in 1998 to display paintings by Degas, Renoir, and Picasso. The Guggenheim museum even opened two branches in Las Vegas, though one has since been closed.

According to Rogers, the arrangement the MFA has struck is not unusual. "Museums have been doing this for some time," he said, citing the Guggenheim in particular. But Rogers's partner in the Monet show disagrees. Marc Glimcher, who runs the Bellagio Gallery, points out that the Guggenheim is a nonprofit organization renting space in a hotel. The Bellagio Gallery is a private venture run by Glimcher's New York gallery Pace Wildenstein. It is not considered a museum, however, because it has no permanent collection. "There's nowhere else where this is happening," Glimcher said.

Pace Wildenstein has run the 2,400-square-foot gallery since 2002, four years after it was opened by casino developer Steve Wynn. Under Pace, the Bellagio held an Andy Warhol show and rented 125 Faberge works from the Armory Museum at the Kremlin. Glimcher approached Rogers with the idea for the Monet exhibition. He's familiar with the MFA's collection, having sold paintings to the museum over the years. And he knew of the museum's rich Monet collection of 36 paintings. Limited space at the MFA, and demand from other museums, keeps many of the Monets loaned out for exhibitions. At least one destined for the Bellagio, "Water Lilies," was most recently at MFA Nagoya, the Japanese museum that agreed in 1991 to pay the MFA $50 million over 20 years for the use of its name, advice, and art.

There was no disagreement about the Bellagio deal, Rogers said, with the trustees on the museum's collections board voting unanimous support. After agreeing to the rental, curator Shackelford, chair of Art of Europe, selected the pieces to send. He had the MFA pull four off the wall -- it now has 12 on view. Shackelford said he based his decisions on building an instructive, chronological selection, not how much cash the MFA would receive for the loan. "You make decisions based on a whole realm of considerations," said Shackelford. "Past travel history. Condition. But above all, just wanting to make a proper show so that it really does reflect Monet's strengths throughout his career."

Glimcher believes Shackelford made the right choices. He also dismissed criticism of the MFA. Last week, Newsweek, in an article entitled, "Show Me the Monet," first reported the million-dollar payment and questioned the ethics behind the arrangement, with Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight telling the magazine the MFA "ought to be ashamed of itself."

"It's a great soundbite -- how you can stick the Monets in with the slot machines?" Glimcher said. "But it doesn't take away the validity of finding a way to make an exhibition that allows hundreds of thousands of people to see Monets. You've got to be some true, dyed-in-the-wool elitist to say that's a bad thing."

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I don't know...The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is undergoing a huge expansion and I'm sure it needs the money but must be very careful not to do anything that would tarnish their reputation. I seriously doubt they are going to empty the museum and send everthing on tour like some of the critics said. Certainly lending art to a casino isn't as absurd as it sounds these days. hmmm...

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