The Joys of Buying Art with ‘Other People’s Money’:
By Daniel Grant
Up to their eyebrows in artwork already, regularly building new wings to accommodate it all, museums can’t stop acquiring more. “[T]here is no doubt that one of the principal joys of a museum director is finding works of art to buy with Other People’s Money,” John Walker, former director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., wrote in his memoirs. Clearly, there was much joy in museum land last year, as museums throughout the United States solicited donations, received bequests and purchased artwork and other objects in large quantity.
“Acquisitions tend to come in waves,” said Peter Marzio, director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, and the last five years have been particularly productive for the museum in terms of accessions. During that period, “one year has been better than the last.” If 2001 did not set a record for acquisitions for the 101 year-old institution, “it would certainly be in the top five.” A number of these new accessions, including six major paintings by 17th century Dutch artists, are already on view in the museum’s new extension, the Audrey Jones Beck building, which opened in 2000 and houses European and American art, as well as a cafe and bookstore.
New building frequently means new acquisitions to fill the structure. The New York City-based Association of Art Museum Directors recently completed a survey of 135 art museums in the United States, finding that more than 100 were currently in the processing of building new, or renovating older, spaces for artwork. “Collections are growing, they need more space,” said Mimi Gaudieri, executive director of the association. “Attendance is growing, they need more space. Programs are growing, they need more space.”
The Boston Museum of Fine Art hasn’t added any new space but has been picking up, through purchases, more contemporary art, which had dropped off almost entirely during the MFA’s mid-1990s restructuring, which saw the departure of contemporary curator Trevor Fairbrother in 1996. His replacement, Cheryl Brutzen, who was hired in 1998, has begun to make her mark and to reengage the institution with the contemporary art world. The museum’s “Millennium Project,” which aims to to strengthen the 20th century and contemporary collections, made a number of purchases in 2001, including German postwar artist Joseph Beuys’ “Untitled (Blackboard)”, the English Op artist Bridget Riley’s “The Song of Orpheus 5,” as well as works by Americans Robert Mangold and Jim Dine. The cash to pay for these works came from a $1 million endowment for the purchase of contemporary art given in 2000 by Catherine and Paul Buttenweiser, who live in nearby Cambridge. Another of the museum’s new projects, “RSVPmfa,” which brings in artists to create site-specific works based on their interpretation of the institution’s collections, led to the purchase of two installations created by Boston native Jonathan Borofsky, “Walking Man” and “I Dreamed I Could Fly.”
If Boston is endeavoring to catch up to last third of the 20th century, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City is vying to stay current with the present day. To this end, the museum has made purchases of works by artists shown at the institution, as well as pieces by artists who are chosen as finalists for the Hugo Boss Award, which provides a cash grant to emerging artists around the world. In addition, the Guggenheim has made considerable gains within the past 10 years to develop and strengthen its holdings in photography and film and video. Two foundations have been helpful to the museum in this: The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation has. On the film and video side, the Bohen Foundation, which commissions works by and otherwise supports media artists, gave the Guggenheim last year a treasure trove of 245 works by 40 artists. “We can now focus on these artists in depth, because we now have some of the most essential works by these artists,” said Lisa Dennison, deputy director and chief curator. “This gift really puts us on the map.”
The overall slowdown in the U.S. economy and the shock caused by the September 11th terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Center did not appear to lessen the enthusiasm of collectors to make donations of objects or to contribute to museum purchase funds. “I sat in on meetings of our three acquisition groups” — the Photography Committee, the Young Collectors’ Council and the International Directors’ Council — “that took place in November, two months after September 11th, and no one didn’t show up, and no one said that we should hold off on buying what the museum needed,” Dennison said. “Everyone seemed pretty gung-ho.”
Of course, there may be effects of the weakening economy down the road, affecting overall giving to arts institutions and the investment-based endowments that support museum purchases. Jim Ballinger, director of the Phoenix Art Museum, noted that while “our core giving is pretty much on beam, we’ve seen some softening in corporate support. There have been a lot of mergers and acquisitions around here, and some branch offices have closed.” The Phoenix Art Museum, however, is in the midst of building a new wing to house modern and contemporary art of the American West and recently hired a new curator in that area, Brady Roberts, who is expected to begin a process of aggressively seeking new works to buy.
Another institution that has had its eye on the recent and the new is the Dallas Museum of Art, an encyclopedic collection, which has a strong focus on modern and contemporary art, a result of its merger in 1963 with the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts and the fact that it plans to present complementary displays to that of the Nasher Sculpture Center, which is located directly across the street. Among its acquisitions in 2001 are a 1955 collage by Willem de Kooning, a 1996 abstract painting by Anselm Kiefer (“This Dark Brightness Which Falls from the Stars”) and a 1969-70 installation by Robert Smithson (“Mirrors and Shelly Sand”). A little less encyclopedic than the Dallas Museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut similarly has substantial collections in a variety of areas, although modern and contemporary are its strongest holdings. In 2001, the museum acquired painter Rene Magritte’s 1950 “The Fickleness of the Heart,” as well as Charles Dray’s 1999-2000 human bone sculpture “Untitled (Tower),” Andreas Gursky’s color photograph “Tote Hosen” (2000) and a collection of drawings, printed matter and sculptures by Sol Lewitt, entitled “Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes” (1974-81). The Lewitts were donated by the artist, who has given a significant number of his own works and pieces by other artists whom he has collected over the years.
Modern and contemporary works on an international scale have also been an interest of the Art Institute of Chicago, which is in the process of physically expanding its museum — the new wing is expected to open in 2005 or 2006 — and shifting around its galleries in the main building. Among the pieces acquired by the Art Institute’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art are a 1953 Ellsworth Kelly oil on canvas, “Red Yellow Blue White and Black,” which consists of seven joined panels, a 1996-99 Brice Marden painting “Attendant 2,” a 1955 oil still-life by Giorgio Morandi, an untitled 2000 plaster, polystyrene and steel sculpture by Rachel Whitehead and a 1984 iron sculpture entitled “Staircase” by Juan Munoz.
Keeping up with the art of the present day is increasingly an important job for almost every museum, although doing so has its benefits and drawbacks. New art attracts new audiences, and new art may also be far less expensive now than down the road after it has passed the test of time. The present-day is unsettled in terms of establishing merit and long-term value yet, according to a spokesman for the Hirshhorn, “more works are available. Older works by established artists just don’t come up as often and, of course, they are often more expensive.” However, buying and exhibiting the new challenges the traditional concept of what is expected of a museum, as opposed to an art gallery or nonprofit art space. Certainly, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery in Washington, D.C. are all heavily focused on contemporary art and their collecting reflects an interest in the new and upcoming.
The Hirshhorn Museum, for instance, purchased four older pieces — Alexander Calder’s 1962 steel “Sky Hooks,” Joseph Cornell’s 1931 collage “Untitled (Schooner),” an untitled and undated drawing by Robert Gwathmey and an untitled 1935-8 oil on canvas by Clyfford Still — and 16 that were completed within the past four years. (Seven of the remaining eight works acquired in 2001 were created in the 1980s or early 1990s.) Among the newest objects are an untitled polyester and graphic on canvas by Agnes Martin from 1998, a 2001 oil painting by Cecily Brown entitled “Hoodlum,” a 2001 William Christenberry sculpture (“Dream Building in Landscape”), a 2001 color photograph titled “Waimea” by Dana Hoey, and a sculpture called “Untitled (Big Man)” by Ron Mueck from 2000. Two other pieces that the Hirshhorn acquired last year are installations, a 2001 piece entitled “New Fungus Crop” by Roxy Paine and a 1998-2000 work called “Pollen from Hazelnut” by Wolfgang Laib.
Also in the hunt for the new, LA MOCA purchased works in 2001 by artists Paul McCarthy (“Tokyo Santa, Santa’s Trees,”1999) and Joel Shapiro (“Untitled,” 1981), as well as William Kentridge (“Medicine Chest,” 2001), Gabriel Orozco (“Toilet Ventilators,” 1997-2000) and Barry LeVa (“Separates,” 1974). James Welling, the subject of a mid-career survey at the museum last year, donated 37 photographs to the institution, and painter Mike Kelley also made a gift of three pictures. Most of these pieces were created within the past few years. The Walker Art Center made a considerable number of its acquisitions at New York City galleries, including Siah Armajani’s sculpture “Glass Room” (2000) from Senior & Shopmaker Gallery, Rineke Dijkstra’s film “The Buzz Club” (1996-7) from Marian Goodman Gallery, David Hammons’ video “Phat Free” (1995-9) from Lawrence Rubin/Greenberg Van Doren Fine Art, Paul McCarthy’s color photographs “Documents” (1995-9) from Luhring Augustine and an untitled Cindy Sherman color photograph (2000) from Metro Pictures.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern accessioned a wide range of post-abstract expressionist artworks, including walls drawings by Sol Lewitt and a 1959 enamel on canvas by Frank Stella from his Black Paintings period entitled “Zambezi,” as well as pieces by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gilbert & George, Philip Guston, Edward Ruscha, Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol. In keeping with its interest in new media, the museum commissioned a number of works for its March 3-July 8 exhibition, “Art in Technological Times,” and these have entered its permanent collection. They include works by Rebecca Bollinger, Janet Cardiff, Rineke Dijkstra, Karin Sander, John Weber and Sarah Sze.
The Museum of Modern was less focused on the up-to-the-minute than some other institutions, acquiring a 1931 sculpture by Alberto Giacometti (“Disagreeable Object”), a 1962 painting by Roy Lichtenstein (“Tire”), a series of drawings from 1951 by Ellsworth Kelly (“Line Form Color”), a series of linoleum cut prints by Pablo Picasso from 1962 (“Jacqueline with Headband I, II, and III”) and two silkscreen prints by Andy Warhol (“Double Elvis,” 1963, and “Ten Foot Flowers,” 1967). On the more contemporary side, the museum also acquired a number of prints by Alighiero e Boetti, Vija Celmins, William Kentridge, Brice Marden, Kiki Smith and Richard Tuttle. At the Whitney Museum, acquisitions ranged from the quite recent to the brand new. Among some of the accession highlights are five photographs by Nan Goldin (dating from 1983 to 1994), five digitally animated DVDs with sound by Jeremy Blake (2000-1) and a wall drawing from 1974 by Sol Lewitt.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri has also been busy in the modern and contemporary market, following up on its receipt in 2000 of 83 modern and contemporary artworks from the Hall Family (as in Hallmark cards). In 2001, the museum purchased a 1965 acrylic by Bridget Riley (“Arrest 2”), a 1983 sculpture by Anish Kapoor (“Six Secret Places”), a 1963 mixed media work by Marcel Duchamp (“Box in a Valise”), a 1984 acrylic by Robert Mangold (“Four Color Frame Painting #4”) and a 1968 steel sculpture by George Rickey (“Two Planes Vertical-Horizontal”). All but the Rickey were acquired through funds provided by William T. Kemper Foundation–Commerce Bank, Trustee. The museum’s largest gift in 2001 was not traditional fine art at all but 178 pieces of Native American art and artifacts, donated by longtime Kansas City resident Donald D. Jones. At the end of last year, the museum hired Gaylord Torrence as its new curator of American Indian art.
The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, made the new its focus of attention. A number of works acquired by Albright-Knox were created in the past year or two, such as Ellen Gallagher’s oil “Bubbel” (2001), David Hammons sculptural “Basketball Drawing” (2001), Robert Longo’s untitled drawing (2000), Fred Tomaselli’s mixed media “Echo, Wow and Flutter” (2000) and Lorna Simpson’s photographic “Untitled (Take a Giant Step)” (1999-2001). These purchases reflect the degree to which the institution has been haunting Manhattan’s galleries. The September 11th attack did not affect Albright-Knox’s acquisitions budget so much as “slowed down the acquisition process,” because “we spent less time in New York City looking at art,” according to a spokeswoman.
Most of the objects that museums acquire are donations, often the result of solicitations and entreaties taking place over a period of years. At times, however, the gifts come in a rush: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art acquired 994 artworks in 2001, 371 of which were year-end gifts — perhaps, the result of tax considerations on the part of the donors. A variety of factors determine the degree to which museums enter the market to buy pieces themselves, including the size of their endowments, the willingness of trustees and friends of the institutions to provide the financing for these purchases, and how determined curators and directors are to chart their own course rather than solicit gifts. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art bought 290 works and received 543 as gifts in 2001 which, at 35 percent purchases, is still relatively high for museums. Perhaps more customary is the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which bought only six percent of the more than 1,100 objects acquired last year, or the Dallas Museum of Art, which purchased 11 percent of the 779 objects acquired in 2001. The percentage of purchases to gifts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is between that of the Dallas Museum and LACMA, as it bought roughly 25 percent of the 800 objects that entered its collection in 2001. Some institutions, however, move more aggressively into the market, purchasing works that they specifically want. Of the 218 works acquired in 2001 by the Walker Art Center, 111 of them, or just a little more than half, were purchases, while the rest were gifts. The even better endowed Getty Museum in Los Angeles made 350 purchases against only 236 gifts of objects.
Encyclopedic museums — those collecting a wide range of new and older Western and non-Western artworks and objects — are the most expensive to run and usually have the largest wish list of objects to obtain. “We have 11 very active departments here,” said Nancy Thomas, deputy director for curatorial affairs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “and our acquisitions have been aggressive across the board.” Still, institutions have their priorities. For instance, LACMA purchased a sizeable collections of Korean art two years ago and has been working to supplement ever since; similarly, the museum has long been strong in pre-Columbian Mexican art but has been seeking other pre-Columbian material “elsewhere in Central and South America. We’re also looking to add to our collection of colonial art to the present in Central and South America.”
Some acquisitions are simply not planned and depend upon an object’s “opportunistic appearance on the market,” she said. One such purchase is a 1734-5 oil painting by French artist Charles-Joseph Natoire entitled “Proserpine Giving Psyche the Water of Beauty,” which a curator discovered was on sale, “and we jumped.” Jumping is not a word often used to describe the way in which museums make their purchases. Traditionally, the process of seeking and obtaining approval to buy an object is long and cumbersome, involving research, presentations to department heads, the institution’s director and the trustees. The funding for a purchase then must be arranged, all of which takes perhaps more time than the seller can spare. Some museums have attempted to streamline the process, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which has been “encouraging curators to make quick purchases,” according to Katie Getchell, deputy director of curatorial administration. “We hope to be more active at auction.”
The J. Paul Getty Museum is always a major player in the market for European artwork, starting in antiquity and going up to the start of the 20th century. Along with an ancient Roman statuette of a bull, dating back between 100 B.C. and 75 A.D., its notable purchases in 2001 included paintings by Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder (“The Return from War: Mars Disarmed by Venus,” about 1614), Claude Monet (“The Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light,” 1894), Edgar Degas (“After the Bath,” 1895) and Eugene Delacroix (“Moroccan Horsemen Crossing a Ford,” 1850), as well as a drawing by Vincent van Gogh (“Arles: View from the Wheatfields,” 1888).
Spending by the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas made news in 2001, but not so much for its acquisitions. It was reported that the institution made payments of more than $2.5 million to certain board members. Membership on a museum board is usually a volunteer post, and a recently revamped code of conduct by the American Association — to whom the Kimbell does not belong — opposes payments to board members and recommends that institutions avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. The museum also directed some money towards the purchase of artworks, including two Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) ceramic figurines. One shows a court lady and the other an earth spirit.