“Museum Quality”: Public, Private, Auctions, Art

Originally published on Spoonfed, February 2012.

In the last year or so something strange has happened. Some of the best, most thoughtful, most important exhibitions have taken place not in London’s major public museums but in the capital’s small commercial galleries – those enclaves of buzzer-access exclusivity dotted throughout Mayfair. As the big institutions are under ever greater pressure to put on ‘blockbuster’ headline-grabbing shows (with entry fees to match), it’s a welcome development for the impoverished art lover.

Richard Nagy’s stunning exhibition of works on paper by Egon Schiele is the stand-out example here, with Haunch of Venison’s fascinating Mystery of Appearance [pictured above left] another. This month sees the trend continue as Eykyn Maclean launch their new London space with an exhibition that includes hitherto unseen paintings by Cy Twombly.

As the distinction between public museums, commercial galleries and private collections collapses apace, the phrase “museum quality” has risen in terms of both prominence and frequency. Richard Green launched his new Bond Street gallery with a  “museum quality exhibition” of works by LS Lowry; Eykyn Maclean emphasises the “museum” specifications of the new space; Christie’s auction of Elizabeth Taylor’s effects contained “scores of museum-quality ensembles”; London Art Fair emphasised its array of “museum quality Modern British art”; and even when The Future Can Wait teamed up with Saatchi and Channel 4’s New Sensations, the press release took care to note the “museum quality” space of Victoria House. All art, it seems, aspires to the condition of the museum.

On the surface, all this is great news. The Schiele exhibition was, for me, by some distance the best exhibition of 2011; other critics hailed the success of Richard Green’s exhibition of Lowry, whose works Tate continue to keep in storage (despite outcries from the likes of Sir Ian McKellan); and Christie’s recent triple exhibition at 6 Burlington Gardens – Lucian Freud prints, Generation Y and Living with Art – was another sumptuous treat, again free to visit for the public.

The interesting thing about Living with Art in particular was that the lots were all from a single collection, and therefore the resulting exhibition was a reflection of the diverse tastes of an individual. A divine George III Pembroke table perched just near paintings by Miro and Murakami, whilst in another corner a Picasso hung above a gorgeous Louis XVI bureau, topped with an African Mbangu mask [pictured above right]. These kind of collisions you just wouldn’t find in an ordinary museum, where there is an ever-present (and understandable) pressure to cater to sundry education, events, marketing and corporate sponsorship requirements. In the commercial sector, in some ways, there is more freedom for curatorial self-expression.

But so far the unasked question is: why? In a recent article in ArtReview, JJ Charlesworth observed  the “emergence of an art world that doesn’t even need to touch a public”, something acknowledged, perhaps inadvertently, in Eykyn Maclean’s recent press release. About their forthcoming Twombly show, Nicholas Maclean had this to say: “As private dealers the majority of our work is conducted discretely. However, our galleries in New York and London enable us to bring together important works, such as these, for public exhibition.”

Why then are these institutions – commercial galleries, auction houses, art fairs – why are they interested in attracting the attention of a (non-buying) general public? Art fairs charge an entry fee so that’s understandable, but what do these other commercial operations stand to gain?

One answer is publicity. Most of the “museum quality” exhibitions mentioned above marked the launch of a brand new exhibition space. Richard Nagy, for example, explains that part of the justification for the Schiele show was because “I’d just opened this gallery on Old Bond Street, so it was waving the flag saying, ‘I’m here’”. And it clearly worked: over 5,000 people flocked to see the show. In addition, because all the works were ones that Nagy had previously sold, the exhibition functioned not only as an overview of Schiele, but also, in Nagy’s own words, as “an overview of 20 years of my dealing in Schiele”.

Matt Carey-Williams, International Director of Haunch of Venison London offers an admirable, if potentially problematic, response to the question of the public: “Our responsibility to our artists is not just to sell their work and place it in prominent collections and institutions. It is also, crucially, to exhibit it to the widest possible audience and afford the richest and most open dialogue possible between the public and the work itself. Commercial galleries, although private enterprises, are public spaces.”

An alternative explanation is, of course, money. Brian Sewell estimated in the Independent that a major exhibition at a public institution would see an artist’s prices jump by 5% or more: “A huge exhibition at Tate Modern is a mark of importance if not of quality,” he said. So, for a Damien Hirst work worth, say, £1 million, that’s an increase of a cool £50,000, effectively overnight. That’s why so many commercial galleries and auction houses start flogging off work by artists who are enjoying major public (and often publicly funded) retrospectives.

The point then is that if a public exhibition can drive up the price of a work of art by bestowing it with increased ‘importance’, then it seems only logical for commercial organisations to cut to the chase and mount such exhibitions themselves. Hence the desire for galleries like Haunch of Venison to see themselves as a public space.

All of this ties in with the changing role of the collector. As more and more collectors open their own museums – Charles Saatchi, Anita Zabludowicz, Dasha Zhukova, Frank Cohen, Viktor Pinchuk, François Pinault – art collecting ceases to remain simply a matter for private enjoyment, and becomes instead a public statement of wealth, power and taste. Such museums call for “museum quality” works to fill them. And the result, as Michael Plummer of Artvest told The Art Newspaper back in January, is “a bifurcation towards ‘masterpieces’”(note the inverted commas). Richard Nagy observes similarly that “collectors now are more like stamp collectors – they want trophy works”. Which is why, as Nagy continues, “on the ‘unrepeatable’ works, prices are staggering”.

This focus on the super high-end (particularly as the middle falls out the market) translates into what might be termed the museumification of auction houses and commercial spaces. This is apparent particularly in the approach adopted by the Bonham’s Contemporary Art Department: this February’s auction follows the path established by last year’s inaugural sale, namely “offering another closely curated and considered sale of 20 lots”. Visiting such sales – sparsely populated and reverential in layout – the overwhelming impression is of the creation of a public museum-style atmosphere with which to bestow, in Sewell’s terms, importance upon the lots (‘quality’ being a little harder to bestow).

This museum aesthetic combines perfectly with the new terminology – ‘unrepeatable’, ‘masterpiece’ and ‘museum quality’ are all effectively synonyms for ‘trophy’ – to shore up a market that is, in Plummer’s words, “highly dependent on confidence” as well as to reassure the museum-owning collector that the works on sale will be of sufficient significance for the great honour of public display.

Aside from the artificial inflation of parts of the art market, there is a larger worry. Carey-Williams observes that “commercial galleries are not in competition with museums” but this might not always be the case. With the current vogue for privatisation, and Vaizey and Hunt’s apparent desire to see philanthropy replace public funding of the arts, somebody somewhere might think it a good idea to allow commercial galleries gradually to take over our public institutions. The popular success of private institutions like the Saatchi Gallery (with three of the four most visited exhibitions in London for 2010) might seem to provide evidence for such a move, but it would be a grave mistake. Public institutions are supposed to stand for something larger than the whims of an individual or the ebbs and flows of the market. The Serota Tendency already means that power in the art world is held by a select few (to obvious detrimental effect). But now it looks like this power shift might be accelerating, and whilst right now it throws up some excellent experiences for the visitor, the dangers are significant. Museum quality deserves museum equality.