Blurred lines: are galleries and museums getting too cosy?

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From Philip Guston and El Anatsui to Marina Abramović and Georg Baselitz, gallery stands at Frieze London and Masters are awash with artists whose works are currently on show in the capital’s public institutions. A strong gallery presence is, in turn, being felt in the museums, where dealers’ logos are splashed over entrances, wall labels and exhibition catalogues.

In an increasingly difficult fundraising climate, dealer involvement in museum shows has become ever more prevalent. This begs the question: are the works we see on museum walls actually for sale?

“From biennials to museum shows, pretty much everything is not for sale until it is,” says the collector and dealer Kenny Schachter, who has loaned a work to the Sarah Lucas survey at Tate Britain (until 14 January 2024). “More often than not, something could be transacted—often the words ‘not for sale’ mean ‘extra costly’.”

In the case of Lucas’s exhibition, nearly 25 works included in the show have been created in the past three years—most of them are on loan from the artist, some in conjunction with her gallery Sadie Coles, who is showing at Frieze London this week. Coles notes how, with “museums [being] increasingly underfunded, galleries provide increased support in order to produce the shows their artists want to realise”.

While some works on show at Tate Britain were included in a 2020 exhibition at her London gallery, Coles insists that “none of [these works] have been offered for sale”.

In a statement, the Tate said, “When staging museum exhibitions of contemporary artists, it is often the case that new and recent works are listed as being on loan from the artist and their gallery.” However, it stresses that “in accordance with government indemnity [a state-backed insurance policy for art and cultural objects on public display], works cannot change hands while on loan to the museum and they are returned to the same lender at the end of the show. Considerations about sales played no part in the planning of the show.”

Castigated over Canaletto

Fifteen years ago, the art world was more squeamish about the crossover between the public and private sectors. In 2010 the late art critic Brian Sewell lambasted the Old Master dealer Charles Beddington for organising (although not sponsoring) a Canaletto show at the National Gallery in London.

Today, gallery support for public shows comes in a myriad of forms—the costs of catalogues, shipping and opening night dinners are often underwritten by dealers. Such contributions are usually pegged at around £20,000 to £30,000. Galleries also often support exhibitions in the planning stages by locating works they have sold to private collectors. The access they provide to clients, therefore, is key and can determine what goes on display—or not.

As a result, experts are more realistic about gallery involvement. “Museums now have less ability to meet their ambitions without more support from dealers,” says Maurice Davies, a cultural consultant and the former policy director at the UK Museums Association.

Nonetheless, he thinks there is a need for greater clarity around the terms of sponsorship deals, particularly if the sponsor has a close connection with the content of a show.

“There’s a risk of a scandal if a museum includes a particular work because it is pressured to do so by the owner who is trying to sell it,” Davies says. “When there are dealers who are quite heavily involved, who is deciding which works are being shown? Putting something in a museum adds status to that particular work and so it seems museums need very clear procedures for justifying the inclusion of each individual work.”

At the Royal Academy of Arts (RA), Marina Abramović’s retrospective has been organised in close collaboration with the artist—many of the works are on loan from her studio, some in conjunction with her two main galleries, Lisson Gallery and Sean Kelly.

Lisson has been “quite involved” in the RA show and in organising its onward European and Israeli tour, according to Claus Robenhagen, a director at Lisson. But, he says, “the idea to show Marina was completely the RA’s”. Nonetheless, he concedes that, as a gallery, “we work very hard to make sure that Marina gets the place in art history that she deserves”.

Naturally, there is a commercial upside. Robenhagen notes how the gallery has seen a spike in interest in Abramović’s work since her retrospective opened. “A lot of London collectors have contacted us about the work in the RA,” he says.

At Frieze, meanwhile, galleries are mirroring institutional shows, albeit on much smaller scales. Milan’s Lia Rumma, which has lent four works to the Abramović show, has two photographs by the Belgrade-born artist on its stand. An edition of Rhythm 4 (1974-2010, priced at €200,000, edition of 3), is on show at the RA. Elsewhere, Vienna’s Galerie Krinzinger is showing photographs by Abramović ranging in price from €35,000 to €150,000. They include a recent body of work, from 2021. The gallery’s founder, Ursula Krinzinger, says that the RA leg of the Abramović show was planned too far ahead to feature these works but she expects they will be included in future iterations when the exhibition travels.

Guston at Frieze, and Tate

Over at Frieze Masters, Hauser & Wirth is capitalising on the Guston retrospective at Tate Modern, showing four works by the late US artist. They include the figurative canvas, Calm Sea (1977), the sister work to a painting on show at Tate Modern titled Black Sea (also 1977). Pieces on the stand start at around $200,000 for works on paper. Two sold on the opening day: one at $200,000 and another, of a hooded Ku Klux Klan figure, at $600,000.

Philip Guston, Untitled (1968) which sold at Hauser & Wirth’s booth at Frieze Masters for $600,000.

Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

The gallery’s display, ranging from 1951 to the late 1970s, reflects the breadth of the Tate exhibition. “We wanted to give a broad sense of what Guston has done, but in the fair. We’re not trying to compete with [the museum], but then there are works available on the market,” says Neil Wenman, the global creative director of Hauser & Wirth, which has represented Guston’s estate for a decade. He notes that the gallery has been “inundated with enquiries”—the Tate show has been “very beneficial for that”, he adds.

As for doing deals on the museum floor, Wenman says: “We would never discuss a work being available or not available while it’s in a museum show. It’s not really appropriate. The vow is to have those conversations on the booth.”

Galleries still seem to draw the line at selling straight from museums’ walls, but their relationships with institutions are becoming ever more fluid. It is perhaps high time, then, for a franker discussion about the realities of a substantially privatised public sector.

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