The Los Angeles Times art critic wrote an amazingly tendentious article over the weekend. Under the pretext of pointing out an ill-conceived and dubious example of a trustee amok at San Francisco’s de Young museum, Knight launches into a grandiose argument that imagines the existence of a unsullied ivory tower of independent and un-corruptible museums that simply has never existed in the United States. Indeed, at the height of American power and prosperity, there was common and regular interaction between museums and the art trade.
Knight is a critic seeking to enhance his stature and influence, so you can’t blame him for pushing the idea. But over the weekend, several prominent art market reporters retweeted links to the story without bothering to question its dubious premise:
For-profit art dealers are organizing shows for nonprofit museums. Museum professionals are organizing shows for commercial art fairs and galleries. Museum collections are being monetized, rented out for profitto other museums and private corporations. Corporations are co-organizing museum shows.
Nonprofit status subsidizes museums through the public tax code. The status was invented more than a century ago to foster diversity of independent thought, free from the narrow economic demands of businessor the ideological commands of government. Today, that independence is being corrupted as the wall separating art museums from business activities is crumbling.
Worse than the grab bag of unrelated evidence is Knight’s obvious and overheated political nonsense that culminates in scare tactic. (For the record, Knight would be hard pressed to find any Republican legislative agenda that includes privatizing Social Security anymore, that’s a policy idea that faded more than a decade ago):
The erosion of the wall between art museums and commerce is a symptom of a larger generational shift that took off in the 1980s and has peaked in the 21st century: The drive to privatize public services and deregulate business, a hallmark of conservative and neoliberal doctrines.
Privatizing initiatives have aimed at diverse projects across a broad spectrum of American life,including state highway systems, college loan programs, federal prisons — even the U.S. military, which saw tens of thousands of private contractors deployed to war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq.The big prize, management of Social Security’s public trust fund, remains an active privatizing goal.
Knight’s examples are almost as intellectually bankrupt as the Social Security privatization idea he adduces above. In it he presents Detroit’s battle over the art owned by the city as the most extreme example of his putative trend. Yet a cursory knowledge of the Detroit bankruptcy would reveal the fact that Detroit’s art became an issue in the city’s bankruptcy not because of grasping commercialization in the 21st Century but because of a unique decision by the city in the early 20th Century to fund the purchase of art works. Had Detroit created the museum as proper not-for-profit institution, the art would never have been an issue. Knight either knows that and is willfully ignoring it. Or he doesn’t know that and was too lazy to actually research his own thesis.
Finally, Knight wants to talk about an important issue while shying away from the really hard questions. Who should fund art museums and how? Government sponsorship is just as fraught as commercialization. Are the AAMD’s guidelines realistic or productive when they prevent art from generating much needed revenue? Are museum goers really so gullible that we cannot trust them to make up their own minds about a museum exhibition? Is it credible? Does it make its case? The worst thing about Knight’s screed is the way it presumes that ordinary museum attendees are ill-equipped to navigate the neoliberal world they are forced to inhabit every much as he is.