Art Tends for 2020: The Big Apple Is Not So Big in the Art World Anymore

I love Christmas, and among its many pleasures is two weeks off. After writing a story each week for forty consecutive weeks, I thought it was time for a descanso, not, alas, on the Costa Brava but in Vermont. Since we’re already in 2020, I’ll start the new year by examining trends for the new decade, informed by some of last year’s big stories.

The biggest art-news story of the year was the Notre Dame cathedral fire on April 15. I wrote about this at the time, and not because I adore the building. Sainte-Chapelle, across the road from Notre Dame, and the cathedrals at Chartres, Beauvais, and Laon are more appealing to me and architecturally more challenging, but Notre Dame is an icon.

To me, the largeness of the story is about heritage preservation. Thousands of distinguished old churches in Europe and America molder as art money goes, if it goes at all, to consumption — supporting temporary shows and performances — rather than infrastructure. Notre Dame was a firetrap, and while it was undergoing a renovation when the fire happened, it was a long-deferred one as well as botched. Most French cathedrals are in awful shape.

I was in Burgos in Spain in November to visit its great cathedral, in beautiful condition after a top-to-bottom renovation aiming at the building’s 800th birthday in 2021. Spain seems to take good care of its heritage buildings. In America, financing the restoration of, say, old church stained glass, is a private affair and extraordinarily difficult for churches trying to support a social-service mission. Church windows by LaFarge and Tiffany are great works of art, as are many of our church buildings. Keeping them in good shape is a cultural imperative, one that our federal and state arts agencies need to embrace. The NEA and NEH should be funding projects that are difficult or even impossible to finance via philanthropy, projects like ecclesiastical art and architecture.

Speaking of the NEA and NEH, last year marked the tacit surrender of the factions opposing federal funding for the arts. After a 30-year siege, federal arts agencies seem more secure than at any time since the 1970s, with their budgets increasing for the first time in years. This isn’t a measure of success or vitality. I support federal funding for the arts and think conservatives make an enormous error in leaving high culture to its own devices and the blandishments of the Left. Sadly, while the two agencies do some good, they mostly dribble away their money on small, predictable projects rather than pushing big ideas. They hardly ever move the cultural dial.

The defenestration of Warren Kanders from the Whitney Museum boardroom was the most astonishing story of the year. Kanders, a $10 million donor to the Whitney, quit after months of protests by left-wingers over his business dealings with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Kanders was targeted — he’s a big Republican donor — and the social-justice mob, collectively called “Decolonize the Museum,” must have realized that the staff of the museum was sympathetic and its leadership squishy.

Decolonize the Museum is a spin-off of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. It finds racism and imperialism in most museum hiring, collecting, and fundraising practices and is unduly invested in Palestinian liberation, a cause, pro or con, to which I don’t think I dedicated a single second of thought when I was a curator and museum director. It seems to target institutions with a big base of Jewish donors.

What astonished me was the Whitney Biennial’s devotion of an entire gallery to a hit piece on Kanders prepared by Forensic Architecture, a London-based think tank using war debris autopsy-style to uncover war crimes as well as war mischief-makers. Kanders’s company sold tear-gas canisters to the U.S. border police; they were used to thwart illegal border crossing and by the Israeli Defense Forces in their anti-terrorist work.

Still from <i>Triple Chaser</i>, a film about Safariland at the Whitney Biennial, 2019.
Still from Triple Chaser, a film about Safariland at the Whitney Biennial, 2019.

Talk about throwing someone under a bus. I wrote about this a few times last year. The curators of the Biennial were inexperienced and bubble-dwellers, which explains why the attack on Kanders was so predictable, but higher-ups clearly left their thinking caps on the L train. First of all, Kanders was extraordinarily generous to the museum, which is not rich. His business is entirely legal. Second, Forensic Architecture’s display — a documentary with glitzy production values — isn’t art, and I’m open to almost anything getting the “art” tag. It’s news reporting. It belongs in a film series. Third, Forensic Architecture is a British outfit. The Biennial at the Whitney is an American art show.

It was high-class appeasement hoping to sate bottomless-pit people. Kanders, the vice chairman of the Whitney’s board, was trashed by his own museum, in its most important show. I suspect future board prospects will ask, “Will this museum be loyal to me?”

Where is the line drawn between dirty money and slightly soiled money? These days, the megaphone seems to belong to people who are ultra-woke, which means they wake up angry. Is that a good thing? Are any of these crybabies going to pull out his, her, or their checkbooks to support the Whitney? When pigs fly. In the U.K., protesters are promoting divestment of fossil-fuel stock from endowments and a ban on BP gifts to museums, and they’re winning. It’s silly and hypocritical, if for no other reason than that oil-based plastic and energy-intensive, mined metals are the main components of computers, iPads, and iPhones that everyone, left or right, can’t do without.

Is this a trend? Some museums are stripping the Sackler name from buildings. The social-justice mob bosses are complaining about Leon Black’s, Rebekah Mercer’s, and the late David Koch’s philanthropy because of either their political views or the sources of their wealth. I think it’s a New York story. It’s not resonating much anyplace else in the U.S. It’s both a museum governance and a finance story, two of the deadest of dead weights in terms of newsiness, ranking far behind fire, murder, mayhem, and rescued puppies.

In Kansas City, a crackpot group called Fang Collective demanded that Mariner Kemper resign as a trustee of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art because the bank he runs — United Missouri Bank — represents bond holders who lent $130 million to a private-sector prison that stopped accepting ICE detainees after political pressure from the city government. Future income from ICE was a key element in the financial plan the prison presented to get its loan. The Kemper is a family-run museum. Would the board ever push the family scion out? Flying pigs, anyone? The public simply doesn’t care about issues this esoteric.

On the one hand, I think museum boards will be a bit more careful in whom they select, especially with new-money people. They’ll consider not only the source of money but the intensity of commitment and the unsoundness of some arrivistes, who can be flaky. On the other, donors of big money will demand contracts requiring museums to return gifts if a naming — such as Sackler — is removed. Above all, when dealing with groups like Decolonize the Museum, leaders need to summon the cojones to say, “shutta you mouth,” to quote Cher in Moonstruck, and mean it. Directors, like university presidents and deans, hesitate to do this. Their hearts aren’t in it — they tend to be people of the Left — and they’re afraid their trustees won’t back them.

The trend to diversify boards by race and gender is indeed national. Sometimes it’s enforced by city governments like New York’s that give hundreds of millions of dollars to museums, own museum buildings and land, or, in the case of Los Angeles and San Francisco, own the local civic museums kit and caboodle. I’m not opposed to different voices on a board. Leaveners are good.

That said, the selection of board members is the most delicate and consequential job for trustees. For a museum, the board functionally owns the place. Primary considerations must always be dedication to the cause, capacity to give big bucks, and a solid commitment to give. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays trustees from the swift replenishment of the museum’s coffers. Collegiality is important, too. Feuds among trustees can take the air out of everything.

A diversity push might be a good idea, but that’s strictly the board’s call. It seems to me the most generous and most committed donors will always have the most power. Packing boards via demographics will most likely lead either to the formation of executive boards with real power, leaving everyone else in the dark, or to big donors fleeing to other causes where their impact isn’t diluted.

A museum is a public place and usually an icon of civic pride. The diversity Sword of Damocles is more likely to dangle over its head than the local hospital’s or symphony’s. That doesn’t change one core dynamic. Skin color is one thing. Skin in the game, the kind that’s green and has Ben Franklin’s picture on it, is another. Museum trustees who don’t give often don’t pay attention, or they’re willing to take unreasonable risks since they know they won’t be part of a bailout when things turn ugly.

Colonial restitution isn’t as big an issue in America as it’s been in Europe but will become one. By “colonial” I don’t mean Paul Revere spoons. In France, Germany, and the Netherlands, the drive to return art to its colonial African and Asian origins is moving smartly. The French, for instance, are returning their hoard of Benin bronzes, some from the 16th century, to present-day Nigeria. This impulse, part of the Decolonize the Museum movement, will surely affect places such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. The issue isn’t theft of art, which is more to the point in treating Nazi looting. It’s a question of local agency diminished by an imperial system and the ethical propriety of heritage art going home.

I think the decisive pressure for action on board diversity, restitution, and dirty money won’t come from outside protests but internally, from staff. Decolonize the Museum is a disparate, unfocused, noisy creature, fixated on Israel and possibly — who knows — animated by anti-Semitism. Whether or not anti-Semitism is what you’ll find if you scratch the surface of Decolonize the Museum, museum staff, especially curators, are broadly sympathetic to most of its policy platform. Depending on the guts and fortitude of museum leadership, they might win the day. When I was a young curator and director, I strongly supported restitution of Nazi-seized art and Native American grave objects. It was an outré opinion. My older colleagues hated both ideas but, over time, they retired, died, or surrendered. Now, these concerns are hard-wired in best practices.

My sense is that the museum marketplace is changing rapidly. It’s growing more decentralized, which means New York City won’t have the title of art capital of the world much longer. New York seized the spotlight in large measure because it offered cheap rent for artists. This is no longer the case. Artists can’t afford to live there. Even businesses as mundane, though essential, as art-supply stores are leaving.

Small and midsize dealers in the city tell me they get very little foot traffic. More people are buying art online or via jpegs dealers. Rich collectors don’t live for the hunt anymore. They hire art advisers who vet what’s for sale. Sometimes, big spenders will visit a dealer to look at something their advisers recommend, their private car’s engine running and their advisers proclaiming, “We have only 15 minutes.” This is unfathomable to me since it signals collector carelessness, the evolution of art into an investment, and a diminution in connoisseurship, but it’s the state of now. Many dealers won’t do art fairs anymore because they don’t make money. Artists and dealers are discovering they can have careers anywhere. Mega dealers such as Hauser and Wirth, whom I like, have shops in Hong Kong, London, Gstaad, San Moritz, Zurich, and Los Angeles, a sure sign that the New York art balloon is hissing air.

One of my New Year’s resolutions is writing more about exhibitions beyond the East Coast. I’ve planned my travel through June. It’ll take me to Houston, Dallas, Crystal Bridges in Arkansas, Tulsa, Kansas City, Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Happy 2020!

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