November 12, 2009

New Museum Brouhaha Goes Supernova


Since opening on the Bowery in 2007, the New Museum has certainly succeeded in making itself the central attraction in New York for people interested in cutting-edge art. Now the museum has made itself the center of controversy as well, with its upcoming show of the Dakis Joannou collection prompting charges that the place is becoming a for-hire "vanity space." That show, dubbed "The Imaginary Museum: Dakis Joannou Collection," Mar. 3-June 6, 2010, is set to be curated by superstar artist Jeff Koons, who has a long relationship with the collector. (The controversy coincides with the opening of the New Museum’s triumphant Urs Fischer show, which also happens to have received some funding from Joannou.)

For the latecomers, an outline of the high points thus far:

* The controversy first took on life in Tyler Green’s Modern Art Notes, and the District of Columbia blogger pressed his case in the Art Newspaper, decrying what he called "private-collector-centric ‘fluff shows’" as being "unethical, improper" and in violation of "the U.S. Internal Revenue Code." Green concludes that any American museum with private-collection exhibitions on their calendars, from the New Museum to the National Gallery of Art, should cancel them immediately, and that the practice should be banned in the future. As for wealthy art patrons, if they want to show their collections to the public, let them pay for their own museums.

* The New Museum team fired back, writing a response in the Art Newspapersigned by museum president Saul Dennison, director Lisa Phillips, chief curator Richard Flood, director of special exhibitions Massimiliano Gioni, curator Laura Hoptman and education and public programs head Eungie Joo. In contrast to Green, who seems to think that Joannou is a philistine with his eye on the bottom line, the New Museum touts the collector’s dedication and expertise. They claim that bringing his holdings to New York is a worthy undertaking, and point out that inviting a guest curator who is an artist adds another level of sophistication. What’s more, the museum says, it "has followed the highest ethical standards in creating this exhibition," an implicit rebuff to Green, who is notoriously self-righteous.

* On Monday, the simmering questions about "The Imaginary Museum" had gained enough steam to make the front-page of the New York Times. After laying out the arguments against the exhibition, including a critical remark by Dan Cameron, a former New Museum curator who reportedly left his post under not-altogether-happy circumstances, the Times seemed to come down in favor of the show. The story quoted Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Campbell cautioning against taking an "overly puritanical" approach to the issue, and Guggenheim Museum chief Richard Armstrong saying that he welcomed bringing "the entire food chain of the contemporary art world" into public view.

* Other comments were less supportive. Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight noted, in his Twitter feed, "Who really cares enough about the 'dialog' between Jeff Koons and Dakis Joannou to go see a museum show about it?" And the New York Times’ own Artsbeat blog went to town on what it apparently considers a web of incestuous doings at the Bowery institution, e.g. New Museum curator Laura Hoptman organized a solo show for Elizabeth Peyton, who shows at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, which also represents Hoptman’s husband, Verne Dawson.

* Most recently, Jerry Saltz chimed in for New York magazine, striking something of a middle ground in l’Affaire Joannou. Saying that the art world "cringed at the insiderness of it all," he reports that "people were also deeply intrigued and excited" at the chance to see "this fabled collection." Saltz thinks that the museum should have had someone other than Koons select the works for the exhibition, but he also says that Green’s belief that Joannou stands to gain anything more than he already has is "a joke." In any case, the New Museum’s rule-breaking, Saltz concludes, may have left it with a "credibility problem."

Art Fag City blogger Paddy Johnson criticized the New Museum show, but also warned against provoking "a New York museum director witch hunt," citing Green in particular. "Bullying speculation such as this is uncalled for and has the potential to be very damaging. I can’t help but feel that the ultimate goal of constructive criticism is getting lost when there are bloggers seeking out scandal we’re not even sure exists." It should be noted that Green and Johnson carry on a lively dialogue, if it can be called that, and Green has countered Johnson’s arguments directly in Art Fag City’s comment section.

* Finally, comic commentary on the whole affair comes from artist William Powhida, who produced an artwork for the cover of the Brooklyn Rail’s November issue, summing up the "web of connections" in which the New Museum is enmeshed. Headlined "How the New Museum Committed Suicide with Banality," the dense, scabrous cartoon phantasmagoria features floating heads of the various players, from a leering Joannou and a grinning Koons, to dealer Gavin Brown (pictured saying "OK, I admit that the New Museum does look a little bit like my bitch, but it is all based on merit"), as well as bloggers like James Wagner and Green, and a saintly caricature of New Museum founder Marcia Tucker. It’s viewable in detail on Powhida’s blog. [Update: The artist notes that the title of this work comes from a blog post by Wagner, who should get credit as an early critic of the Joannou show.]

So far, the back-and-forth has shed more heat than light. As always in such cases, transparency is the key. How much is the show costing? Who’s paying for it? Are works in the exhibition for sale? Needless to say, museum officials would rather drink cyanide than answer such questions. It would be nice, however, if they were occasionally asked by someone besides Charlie Finch [see"Transparency at the Whitney?" Oct. 13, 2009].