Blackjack and haystacks

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts is sending 21 Monet masterworks to the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas, in return for a payment of at least $1 million. Here is some promotional material, here is another account.

From my point of view this is good news. The museum has 36 Monet paintings (an MFA curator tells me 80 but I cannot confirm this in print), and they cannot be displayed all at once. Only five Monets will be taken down from the walls to run the show. The Casino brings in more customers, and more people will see the art of Monet. The Bellagio Gallery is run by international art dealers Pace Wildenstein, who have expertise in displaying quality paintings. The casinos themselves are masters of security and climate control, two important factors in any art show. On top of everything, the MFA is not a major recipient of state and federal grants, so now it has more revenue to stage future shows.

What then is the problem? Art world critics charge that the museum is “selling out,” by lending art in return for money. But surely blatant commercialism has a long and often noble history in the artistic world. Most of the notable artists of the Italian Renaissance were consummate businessmen, and they produced for patrons who had their own motives of power, profit, and status. Furthermore few museums predate the nineteenth century. Before that time commercially (or politically) motivated collectors played a primary role in producing artistic publicity.

The real issue: Many people in the museum world are afraid this venture will succeed. If a museum can make money lending pictures to a casino, why do such institutions need explicit government support? Right now museums. for better or worse, are often the major artistic agenda setters. Greater commercialization threatens to take this role away from museums and place it in the hands of the greater public. People will pay $15 to see Monets in a casino, but not to see Robert Gober.

Have you noticed that Clear Channel, the media company and Rush Limbaugh promoters, is now in the business of organizing art exhibits on a for-profit basis.? This too is unpopular with the traditional museum crowd, for competitive, aesthetic, and political reasons. Clear Channel plays commercial hardball with the display sites and puts the exhibit together in a year or two. A non-profit museum, in contrast, will invest in greater scholarship and perhaps take ten years or more to put together an exhibit. This market is starting to change rapidly, and museum curators are scared. Unlike most Americans, I prefer to see Gober over Monet. But at the same time I wish that museums enter and master the future to come, rather than running away from it.


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