Ethics in the art world

LA Times just published this article by Mike Boehm today “Code Breaker for a Scripps College Museum Exhibition.”In it he talks about the ethical conflict for the museum in hiring an active art dealer and gallery owner as co-curator of their “Clay’s Tectonic Shift” exhibition, a part of PST in Los Angeles. Having received hundreds of thousands from the Getty, it is interesting that neither the Getty nor the academic museum found Frank Lloyd’s role to contain a conflict of interest.

Clay's Tectonic Shift @ Scripps, Williamson Gallery

John Mason, Untitled (Monolith), 1964

While helping to organize and co-curating the retrospective on the work of Mason, Price, and Voulkos, Lloyd’s own gallery was also planning its own exhibition highlighting the three key figures from LA’s heyday of sculptural infamy. Boehm’s article states clearly the reasons why the AAM frowns on this kind of conflict and encourages museums to seek independent curatorial voices rather than those with financial interests, but I may ask, if we dismiss art experts who have a financial stake in the work they support, who is left to speak for the audience in the museum?

Christopher Knight’s quote at the end of the Boehm piece is especially poignant, he says, “Ultimately, the museum’s interest is scholarly, and the dealer’s interest is mercantile… Those interests might both be honorable, but they’re not the same, and sometimes they even clash. That’s why the AAM has a code of ethics that forbids it. Scripps and the Getty made a mistake by not honoring that.” Of course, he is right, and the academic aspect of the case is why it is most surprising to me. That a college art museum would choose a gallery owner to co-curate, when their interests are toward educating the public and students about an art historical period and their own art history department, and the resources at Claremont’s 5Cs are so great, is frankly shocking. That said, when we speak of public museums, who is better to represent the public than those whose financial interests are dependent on knowing and pandering to the public eye? I wonder if gallery owners and dealers have an astute viewpoint that should be incorporated into the museum culture. We like to think that museums are independent spaces of scholarly interest, but really they aren’t, half of the shows, especially in Los Angeles, explicitly seek blockbuster status, attempting to engage a dialogue outside of the art historical (Tim Burton, anyone?).

I have to say, so many museums are stuck in the old ways of doing things, are weighed down by their collections and issues of preservation and the veneer of ivory on their towers, that they can’t see beyond to the public they are attempting to service, a public who have changed drastically in the hundred or so years since museums last experienced a true overhaul in practice. I love that these questions are coming up, that the rules that govern museum practice are being tested and, although they may turn out in the end to be supported as BEST practice, are being challenged and debated in a public forum. These days art experts are not limited to museums and academic institutions, many have roles in the real world and to dismiss their information and abilities because of their outside financial interests MAY be an oversight.

What do you think?

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