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Private Art Galleries Expected to Give Money for Museum Exhibitions

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March 7, 2016
Web journalist, coffee junkie and art fanatic. Cares about the environment, writes for Widewalls. Alias of Milica Jovic

They might be captivating and thought-provoking, but large museum exhibitions are also quite expensive and their costs are getting higher every year. That’s why the museums’ officials are finding new and innovative ways of funding their shows. In the desire to pay for their costs the non-profit museums often turn to commercial galleries for financial help. The recent survey shows that galleries are often asked to contribute to covering the expenses of exhibitions that present works from the artists which those venues represent. The galleries are expected to pay for pretty much everything from opening-night dinners and catalogs to shipping. This practice has resulted in the large influence of the major galleries on the functioning of the public museums, that are required to choose the shows independently. The situation has raised many questions about who gets to decide what the vast audience in the public museums should see – the museum experts of their financiers.

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Whitney Museum of American Art

The Galleries’ Contribution to Museum’s Contemporary Exhibitions

According to The New York Times, many museums demand galleries to pay between $5,000 and $200,000 for exhibitions featuring their artists’ work. For instance, during the recent Frank Stella exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, both galleries that represent the acclaimed artist helped pay for the installation of two outdoor sculptures on view at the museum. Of course, Whitney is not the only museum that seeks for contributions. The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston has an ongoing exhibition of works by Vera Lutter, that was partly funded by the Gagosian Gallery, which represents the German photographer. Many galleries are expected to pitch-in in order to cover the costs and the size of the contribution is determined based on the financial power of the gallery. In the conversation for The New York Times, Lucy Mitchell-Innes of Mitchell-Innes & Nash admitted that her gallery is asked “once or twice” a month to pay between for $5,000 to $50,000 in order to support the public shows of their artists’ artworks. The gallery owner also added that this is a relatively new situation because “Ten years ago, museums rarely, if ever, asked galleries to support their artists’ museum exhibitions,”. Angela Westwater of the Sperone Westwater Gallery had similar experiences, except she was asked for a slightly larger sum that never went under $10,000.

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Sperone Westwater Gallery via New York Times

The Significant Influence of Major Private Galleries

So, how does this affect the exhibition schedule in the museums? Many are concerned that now, instead of choosing an artist that fully deserves to have their work exhibited in the museum, these institutions simply turn to those who have the richest representation. According to the 2015 survey published by The Art Newspaper, almost one-third of major museum exhibitions in the United States featured works by artists represented by only five major galleries: Gagosian, Pace, Marian Goodman, David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth. The extensive research was done in the period between 2007 and 2013 and included more than 600 major shows in 68 museums across the country. The same survey for instance, showed that 11 out of 12 solo exhibitions at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum displayed works represented by these five galleries. And although the spokeswoman for the museum said that they select artists “by the excellence, uniqueness, and relevance of their practices, not by which galleries represent them” the survey definitely raised concerns about the rising influence of the very small numbers of wealthy galleries on the functioning of the museums.

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Guggenheim Museum

The Independence of Museums in Danger?

Maxwell Anderson, former director of Whitney Museum, for instance, stated that: “The self-interest of the gallery can compromise the independence and integrity of the curatorial voice,” as the pieces from museum collection mix with the gallery-owned works that will soon be up for sale. That way, instead of educating the public about Contemporary art, the museums are turning into large advertising agencies working in the galleries’ behalf. Despite the obvious conflict of interest, it’s highly unlikely that the trend will stop, considering that the arrangement seems to work for both sides. Museums get the much-needed money to cover the costs of their shows (that have risen significantly due to the high price of insurance). On the other hand, big museum exhibitions can be a career turning-point for up-and-coming artists but also raise the price of works for already established masters, which is why the commercial galleries will probably continue to support the shows financially.

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Featured images : Frank Stella Outdoor Installation at Whitney Museum via The New York Times