The money behind the exhibits; Brooklyn Museum of Art's 'Sensation' controversy raises troubling questions about how art shows are funded.


Like universities, symphony orchestras and theaters, art museums depend upon donors to help defray the costs of running their institutions, whether they're paying the heat bills or presenting an exhibition. But which donors are considered acceptable? What do they want in return? When does quid pro quo become far too much?

Questions like these suddenly are in the spotlight, thrust there by the flap over the financing of "Sensation," the controversial exhibition of British art on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. But most museum professionals -- while differing on many aspects of the debate -- agree that the questions raised by the Brooklyn affair are ever-present in the world of nonprofit cultural institutions.

"These are issues that come up regularly, that people think about in the museum world," says Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. "As times change, as financing changes, different issues arise, and it's important to always have before you what your set of values is -- to constantly assess that you are meeting these values."

Critics of the Brooklyn Museum say that its director, Arnold Lehman, overstepped ethical boundaries by soliciting funds for the show from companies and individuals who have a direct commercial interest in the artworks on display.

Part of the debate focuses on the content of the Brooklyn show itself: It is drawn entirely from the private collection of Charles Saatchi, an advertising magnate and powerful art patron.

In addition, the Brooklyn Museum accepted a pledge of $160,000 from Saatchi himself; solicited donations of $10,000 each from art dealers; accepted $50,000 in return for considerations including unlimited access to the museum for social events to Christie's auction house, which previously has sold works from Saatchi's collection.

"The idea of a major museum in a major city like New York presenting an exhibition of a single collector -- especially a high-profile collector -- is a big issue. I see it as less of a problem for a smaller museum, which may have a reason to cultivate a local collector. I think the history of Saatchi as a kind of trafficker of objects -- he has sold off whole series of art when he has tired of them -- means the [Brooklyn Museum] has entered dangerous territory," says Gary Sangster, director of The Contemporary of Baltimore. "It's not a legal question. It is a question of appearances and propriety."

No easy directions

But there is no "how-to" book for exhibition funding. As government support of the arts has dwindled in the last decade, and as expenses have gone up, museums have been forced increasingly to be inventive when raising money. And many museum professionals, while they may not agree with the decisions made at the Brooklyn Museum, say that they are familiar with the kinds of pressures faced by Brooklyn administrators.

Lehman, reluctant to grant interviews while the controversy has raged, defended his actions in an interview with the New York Times, saying commercial concerns were far from his mind while planning the exhibition. "Corporations are giving money for marketing purposes, for publicity purposes, for promotional purposes, for whatever reason is ultimately going to support their business and that's nothing to be ashamed of," he said.

When the funding arrangements at the Brooklyn Museum were made public, "a little bit of a chill went down my spine," says Joy Heyrman, director of development at the Walters Art Gallery. "There was a ring of familiarity in the kinds of connections that had been made between the project and potential sponsors. What we in museums do is look for connections and even self-interest in potential donors."

She means that when looking for sponsors, museums look first for corporations or individuals who already have some connection to the art. To varying degrees, that connection may be financial.

"You might get an international corporation to support an exhibition of art from its originating country -- you see that a lot at the National Gallery," she says. "Or you see companies with business interests in those other countries supporting the show."

For example, the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York is presenting an exhibition featuring the work of Charles and Ray Eames. "It is sponsored by Herman Miller Inc., which manufactures Eames furniture and the textile manufacturer that makes and sells the textiles," says Brenda Richardson, the former deputy director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, who now is an independent curator.

"That doesn't mean that the exhibition was done to enrich the manufacturers. It was done because the Eameses were important artists, and then they set out to find sponsors who have a reason to sponsor the show."

Contemporary art presents additional challenges to museum administrators. The art is more frequently owned by private collectors, its subject matter is more likely to be controversial (and therefore less appealing to sponsors) and it presents fewer opportunities for income through indirect means such as gift shop items.

Exhibitions like the one at the Brooklyn Museum, which draw primarily from an individual's private collection, also present particularly thorny challenges. On one hand, they are difficult to fund -- after all, what donor wants to sponsor the art show of a wealthy individual or a corporation? On the other, the argument goes, publicity from an exhibition could inflate the value of a private art collection. And if the collector sells his art after the show, there could be at least an appearance of collusion.

Curators point out that works included in exhibitions are judged not on their value but on artistic merit. Any inflation in price "is an indirect effect of what we do in museums, just as it is an indirect effect when a theater presents the work of a contemporary playwright," says Richardson. "We don't pretend to be foolish or naive in not recognizing it happens, but it is not why you do the show."

To avoid any appearance of impropriety, some museums try to exact a promise from the collector that some or all of the art will be donated or bequested to the museum, or at least an assurance that the art will not be sold. "The promise of a gift means that the works have been taken out of the marketplace, that they are no longer in play," says Heyrman. "Everybody tries to get that first, of course, but a lot of institutions don't insist on it. Especially if you really think that these things should be seen, that the public would benefit."

The issue gets still more complex because most curators are expected to court private collectors -- in hopes that their art will wind up one way or another as part of the museum's holdings. "We work with private collectors in hopes that they will volunteer at the museum, give money to the museum, support the museum and maybe give art to the museum," says Bolger. "You can't ask, 'Is showing art from a private collection right or wrong?' It's too complicated. We all hope in the museum world that when we do a private show that the art will come to the museum. Now the degree to which people promise to do that varies institution to institution."

The key, say many museum professionals, is what museum administrators are thinking while planning the exhibition and its funding. "There are two things to consider: intent and sequence. You don't book a show because you raised money for it. You decide on a show and then you raise the money," says Richardson.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad