The Authority of the New Museum

The New York Times explores the fight over the New Museum’s decision to allow Dakis Joannou to show parts of his collection at the museum. The valid complaint is that the museum is valorizing Joannou’s work when it ought to be a disinterested arbiter of art historical merit. But the Times doesn’t leave it at the tut-tutting of the art vigilantes. Instead, the reporters give a fair amount of equal time to museum directors who recognize that museums are neither static nor operated by mandarins:

In discussing the New Museum show, several museum leaders cautioned against what Thomas Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, described as “overly puritanical” judgments about “the delicate dance” between museums and collectors. “The Met wouldn’t be the Met — the Met wouldn’t have the collections it has — if it hadn’t been for private collectors,” he said. […]

Richard Armstrong, the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, agreed. “I think it’s useful for the entire food chain of the contemporary art world that private collections go on view — and if they become more valuable in the process, that doesn’t hurt anyone.”

Art business experts expressed no doubt that a museum show enhances the art’s value —regardless of whether it is taken right to market. “Showing at a museum gives credence to the works a collector has assembled and does add value to the asset,” said John Arena, senior vice president in custom credit at U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management.

The critics have a legitimate point. But the role they envision for any museum is simply unattainable. How does a museum gain the authority to be an arbiter of art historical value? By election? Certainly not. It happens show by show in a constant process that can both gain and lose clout for the institution. The Joannou show can only be measured by its effect and then we’ll know whether the New Museum has burnished or squandered its reputation.

Some Object as Museum Shows It’s Trustee’s Art (New York Times)