Whither the mu­seum?

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By Natasha De­gen Natasha De­gen is chair of art mar­ket stud­ies at the Fash­ion In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy.

When Lon­don’s premier art fair, Frieze, opens for the first time in Los An­ge­les this week, it will make a bid for pop­u­lar ap­peal.

The celebrity-stud­ded par­ties, per­for­mances and prod­uct launches will fol­low the tem­plate pi­o­neered by an­other fair, Art Basel, which in re­cent years has be­come a des­ti­na­tion and brand along the lines of Burn­ing Man or Coachella. With breath­less cov­er­age — Cardi B per­formed! Kanye at­tended a Prada party in sweat­pants! — even the tabloid press has taken no­tice of the Mi­ami fair.

Now Frieze also aims to tran­scend its ori­gins and reach be­yond the rar­efied cir­cle of in­dus­try in­sid­ers. The goal is to be­come a cul­tural phe­nom­e­non, with Frieze sig­ni­fy­ing a place to be and be seen.

As the pub­lic’s in­ter­est in art has surged along­side such de­vel­op­ments, its un­der­stand­ing of art has come more fully un­der the in­flu­ence of com­mer­cial in­ter­ests than ever be­fore. The trend is un­likely to abate. The con­sol­i­da­tion of power tak­ing place in the art mar­ket means that the loud­est voices are get­ting louder.

Even some mu­se­ums are tak­ing cues from the mar­ket. Amer­i­can mu­se­ums have long re­lied on sup­port from pri­vate sources — whether in­di­vid­u­als, foun­da­tions or cor­po­rate spon­sors — but in­creas­ingly they are look­ing to art mar­ket play­ers as well. One in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­vealed that nearly a third of ma­jor solo mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tions in the U.S. between 2007 and 2013 fea­tured artists rep­re­sented by just five gal­leries: Gagosian, Mar­ian Good­man, Hauser & Wirth, Pace and David Zwirner. It is no co­in­ci­dence that these “mega­gal­leries” are the most able to share in the costs of stag­ing shows.

Mean­while, these same com­mer­cial gal­leries are po­si­tion­ing them­selves to look more and more like mu­se­ums, with am­bi­tious ex­hi­bi­tions, re­search de­part­ments, pub­lish­ing arms, and ameni­ties like gift shops and cafes. Hauser & Wirth spear­headed this new model when it opened its 116,000square-foot Los An­ge­les gallery in 2016. Not only does the space en­cour­age pub­lic use — its open-air court­yard, for in­stance, fea­tures com­mu­nal ta­bles, an herb gar­den and a chicken coop — it also hosts com­mu­ni­ty­ori­ented pro­gram­ming, in­clud­ing a part­ner­ship with Cal State L.A. Sev­eral Yelp re­views iden­tify it as a “mu­seum.”

To­day, Pace is in the process of con­sol­i­dat­ing its New York op­er­a­tion, cur­rently spread over three lo­ca­tions. The eight­story head­quar­ters it is build­ing will be larger than New York’s New Mu­seum when it opens in Septem­ber. Mere blocks away, David Zwirner is plan­ning a five-story, $50-mil­lion gallery de­signed by Renzo Pi­ano, and Hauser & Wirth is con­struct­ing a multi-gallery build­ing that will in­clude a book­store and a restau­rant.

As arts non­prof­its strug­gle to stay sol­vent and art mag­a­zines fal­ter, mega-gal­leries are pour­ing money into both ven­tures. In Novem­ber, Hauser & Wirth an­nounced the in­au­gu­ra­tion of Hauser & Wirth In­sti­tute, an in­de­pen­dent non­profit foun­da­tion that will fa­cil­i­tate schol­ar­ship through a fel­low­ship pro­gram and study cen­ter. Both Hauser & Wirth and Gagosian have launched lav­ish art mag­a­zines.

What ap­pears to be a means of sup­port­ing artists, or even the art ecosys­tem as a whole, can also be viewed as a push for ver­ti­cal in­te­gra­tion. Why take out ads in art mag­a­zines when you can have your own glossy quar­terly, with your own ad­ver­tis­ers to boot?

Such ini­tia­tives may be se­ri­ous and valu­able en­deav­ors, but they cre­ate a feed­back loop that ben­e­fits gal­leries’ artists and bot­tom lines. Their ex­ten­sive net­works and large bud­gets en­sure im­pres­sive con­tent — why else would Louis Vuit­ton place an ad in a pub­li­ca­tion that is ef­fec­tively an ad it­self? — but these ef­forts fun­da­men­tally sup­port a com­mer­cial agenda.

With trou­bling signs that non­prof­its are be­ing used to ad­vance pri­vate in­ter­ests, in­de­pen­dent voices mat­ter more than ever. Even at their best, the nar­ra­tives and agen­das pro­moted by ma­jor gal­leries can’t help dis­plac­ing al­ter­na­tives from smaller, in­de­pen­dent and pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions.

The pub­lic mu­seum was born out of the same his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances as the modern state, mak­ing an in­tan­gi­ble idea — na­tional power — man­i­fest in the form of a shared cul­tural her­itage. Its neo­clas­si­cal ar­chi­tec­ture em­u­lated an­cient tem­ples, sug­gest­ing au­thor­ity and per­ma­nence, much like its dop­pel­ganger, the court­house.

Given this lin­eage, mu­se­ums through­out most of the world were, and con­tinue to be, largely govern­ment-funded. But this was never true in the United States; to­day the typ­i­cal U.S. mu­seum de­rives less than a quar­ter of its op­er­at­ing rev­enue from govern­ment sources. As a re­sult, Amer­i­can mu­se­ums now charge as much as $25 per per­son for ad­mis­sion.

In con­trast, ad­mis­sion to com­mer­cial gal­leries is free. But gal­leries are not court­ing the pub­lic with costly mu­seum-like spa­ces and pro­gram­ming in or­der to be phil­an­thropic.

Even if few of the 75,000 vis­i­tors to Yayoi Kusama’s 2017 show at David Zwirner could af­ford her work, the ex­tra­or­di­nary turnout en­hanced the art’s value and boosted the gallery’s brand. How­ever sub­tle, a trans­ac­tion is al­ways present. As with the of­fer­ings of so many name-brand tech com­pa­nies, we should be clear-eyed about who is the cus­tomer and who is the prod­uct, and what of in­tan­gi­ble value we stand to lose.

Linda Nylind Frieze

MEGA-GAL­LERIES and art fairs like Frieze, com­ing to Los An­ge­les this week, are con­sol­i­dat­ing power and inf lu­ence.

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