Art Appreciation: When collectors cash in on museum reputations

flipThe Smithsonian’s recent Cosby quagmire stands as the latest, most public, instance of an unfortunate trend and its consequences: art collectors are leveraging public educational institutions and spaces to build reputations and provenance that add value to their collections. This is a whopping conflict of interest that has been, until now, only periodically acknowledged, and just as periodically shrugged off.

Conflicts of interest are laughed off in the art world. Curators are collectors. Collectors are dealers. Artists are collectors and curators. Advisors are dealers. Hell, even bidders at auction are guarantors or, worse, silent “partners.” No one bats an eye as those who advise also sell and those who bid also back. So it’s no wonder that few have noticed (and fewer still have spoke out) when those who educate — curators and museum trustees — teach the value of their own collections and do it in publicly owned or dedicated spaces.

Art Appreciation 101

I won’t ask you to pardon the pun: museums are trusted educators and are beholden to the public they serve, therefore the art works they show— and thus crown as worthy of a place in the dialog that is art history— appreciate in value. And that value is cultural as well as pecuniary. This is a fact.

If a museum trustee places work from their collection in a show, they are using the public space and the museum’s educational mission, to ratchet up the value of their private property. This is a conflict of interest.

If a collector pays to show their work in a museum show, this is a conflict of interest.

If a corporation funds a show and places in it, works from their corporate collection, this is a conflict of interest.

Excuses Excuses

There are those who have offered mitigating factors, some of which are partially valid. If, for instance, the private funding of a collector, corporation or art gallery that stands to profit from the display of their artists in a museum is published in the show catalog, many will forgive. This has, though, become a precedent that can lead to complications. (Yes, if you must: a slippery slope.)


The Slide

In 2009, prominent art collector, Dakis Joannou, caused a media stir when he placed some of his Koons-heavy collection Skin Fruit, in a show in the New Museum of Contemporary Art. The controversy made the media rounds and evaporated.

Joannou was, at that time, a trustee of the museum and, Koons’ work figures heavily in his collection. And yet the museum seemed to see no problem in allowing Koons to curate the show and include work from Jaoannou’s collection — including several of Koons’ own pieces.

How did this get past the museum’s radar of cultural responsibility? Well, similar conflicts of interest had already brushed against the grain our social conscience and then gently faded like a ghost into the wallpaper.

In 1999 prolific collector and art star maker Charles Saatchi placed giant hunks of his private collection in a travelling show called Sensation. The show, heavily funded by Saatchi, was first plunked down in Royal Academy and then went on to The Brooklyn Museum. It featured some of Saatchi’s latest acquisitions, loosely gathered under the umbrella term YBA (Young British Artists).

Bracketed though it was by auctions of some of the included art, mutterings in the press just came off as cranky, conservative, attempts at censorship since the show was loaded with controversial subject matter. The subject was soon forgotten.

In 2008 Chanel partnered with Zaha Hadid to create a Mobile Art Pavillion in Central Park: not only was the art largely an homage to the fashion giant, but Chanel made sure that it snagged contracts with the artists for first dabs on the purchase of the works included in the show. This was, mind you, a city-sponsored corporate funded exhibit on public property.

No wonder Skin Fruit came and went without fostering a serious conversation about conflicts of interest. We’d already been there done that and social/cultural/economic concerns just never stuck. Now we are used to it. Almost

Erika Ranee Cosby's Hanging Out to Dry, 1991 Shellac, oil, charcoal, pencil on canvas 183.3 x 212.8 cm (72 1/8 x 83 3/4 in.) Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr. Photograph by Frank Stewart, permission courtesy of the artist via the National Museum of African Art website
Erika Ranee Cosby’s
Hanging Out to Dry,
Shellac, oil, charcoal, pencil on canvas
183.3 x 212.8 cm (72 1/8 x 83 3/4 in.)
Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr.
Photograph by Frank Stewart, permission courtesy of the artist via the National Museum of African Art website

The Cosby Quagmire

When someone catches a liar in a lie, the culprit usually offers excuses. I’m not a liar, I just wanted… I just needed… I just thought… As if having reasons to lie somehow made you not a liar. A liar who lies for a reason is still a liar.

Childish as this sounds, and as obvious as the truth of it seems, there are many who just don’t understand that a conflict of interest is similar.

When The New York Observer asked Charlotta Kotik, the museum’s curator at that time, to comment on the issue of Saatchi, a dealer and private collector placing his own art in the museum, she said, “We decided that in the contemporary field there are so many collectors who have things to say like Charles that it was no different than showing the collection of Leopold II of Sweden.” Except Saatchi is alive and stood to gain a lot by leveraging the museum’s reputation.

Jump to the present: The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art has a trustee, Dr. Camille O. Cosby, who, along with her husband, William H. Cosby, owns an art historically valid personal collection. The Cosbys are friends of the director, Dr. Johannetta B. Cole, and Camille Cosby sits on a board with her at the National Visionary Leadership Project. Yet the museum saw no problem in putting up an exhibit which:

  • features the Cosby’s collection
    • comes with a catalog soaked in sweaty praise for the Cosbys and their collection
  • features quotations by the Cosbys
  • includes the work of their daughter, Erika Ranee Cosby.

The Smithsonian’s excuse: The Cosby’s don’t plan to sell any of the art any time soon.

Still a conflict of interest

The National Museum of African Art actually can’t know (nor want to know, or wish to admit knowing) when the Cosby’s or their heirs will sell the work they’ve placed in the Conversations show. The museum may even secretly hope they will gift that work — to which they’ve given their imprimatur to the museum. Sell now or sell (or gift) later, increased value is the result of showing the work and the Cosby’s are abusing their role and the museum is complicit. The show, along with being about the Cosby’s, is also a vehicle for growing the value of their collection. It is a conflict of interest.

We have a problem

I, like many, do not wish to trod heavily on the toes of a culture that makes free with boundaries and allows its players to switch roles, put on masks, and play dirty. I kind of like it; it’s fun. In a world where everything we do is bound by rules and tied up in red tape, the art world is free and naughty. I enjoy that. I make my living writing about it.

However, where there are matters of public trust, I wish to draw the line.

Here’s the base issue: a trusted educator should give us the truth, not create it. If, in the pursuit of fame, glory, and not a small amount of property and/or wealth, a collector and a museum collaborate to create art historical value, we have a problem.

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