Should museums allow artists to curate shows in which their work is featured? Since Jeff Koons’ acceptance to curate an exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art which opened this week , onlookers have voiced their feelings of apprehension towards the Museum’ choice. The main point of contention is that Koons’ own work plays a vital roll in the collection that is exhibited. How can an artist give an educational and objective view of work that is his own? Furthermore, the show focuses on works from the private collection of Greek billionaire, Dakis Joannou who is not only a trustee of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, but also a close friend of Koons and his number one supporter. Some have raised the concern that this is a major conflict of interest, since the Museum has to spend almost no money to borrow works for the show, and every piece of art included will increase in value from being exhibited. It appears that both Koons and the Museum could jeopardize their reputation if the public is displeased with the overall exhibit’s final result.
A recent New York Times article expresses the reasons behind the Museum’s unlikely choice of Koons to curate the exhibit, saying it was due to his unconventional way of looking at art. Robert Storr, the dean of the Yale University School of Art has said that artist-organized shows often succeed because artists are able to find a unique angle that trained curators, pursuing a more historical and formal mission, overlook. The show’s recent opening confirms this theory as it was well-received by the pubic, negating some prior concerns. Thus, should we really be questioning the ethics of the artist-curator or instead wondering why museums do not ask artists to curate exhibits that include their own works more often? Are there siginifcant conflicts of interest with the display of private collections at museums?
Here at the New Britain Museum of American Art, we have featured a distinguished series of exhibitions of private collections of our members and trustees. This is a common practice throughout many museums. We believe it gives the public a chance to view works they have not seen before. Our aim, as is that of the collectors, is to bring beautiful and educational shows to the Museum. The line may blur when collectors then sell the exhibited works of art, now worth more since they have been shown. Fortunately, this has not happened in our exhibition history. Our collectors generally donate works of art to the Museum, and if they do sell, it is to “trade up” and later on donate even more impressive works to the Museum.
Additionally, our NEW/NOW exhibition series is guest curated by the very artists whose work is on dispaly. A solo show, and for many their first museum exhibition, the NEW/NOW series presents the work of emerging artists on the brink of their “big break”. We keep the exhibitions simple and allow the work to speak for itself. The artist consult with our curatorial committee to decide which pieces to showcase, and includes a one page artist’s statement to help our visitors understand their unique point of view. While this may seem similar to the Koons case, we believe that in many cases, artists are best suited to discuss their work and communicate their ideas directly to the viewers. We hope that one day many of them will have international fame and the backing of ample scholarly research and publications, but as we showcase artists on the brink of making it big, we fimly believe that they are often the best interpreters for their own works.
Do you think artists should curate exhibitions that display their own work more or less frequently than artists do now? Do you think it would enhance their art or is it simply a job that should be handled by the curator and museum staff? Is it wrong to exhibit private collections that belong to museum trustees? Is it right? Where is the line?