Culture

Museum Happenings: Protesters Stage a Die-In in NYC, and Students Accuse Staff of Racism in Boston

Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
Sotheby's goes private, Sacklers’ dirty money, and water bottles in the art news as spring turns to summer

What does a rich guy need with an auction house? Whose money is too dirty to take? Who should be a trustee of a museum? When is a water bottle a weapon? Summer’s here, but before we get too leisured, I want to poke and prod some sense from these recent headlines.

French telecommunications billionaire Patrick Drahi bought Sotheby’s, with Christie’s one of the world’s oldest and biggest auction houses, for $3.7 billion. Drahi plans to take the company private after 31 years as a public company. Another French billionaire, Francois-Henri Pinault, already owns Christie’s.

What does this mean? Sotheby’s will be freed from many disclosure requirements governing guarantees to consignors and loans to buyers. Sotheby’s guaranteed a $150 million price to the owner of a major Modigliani nude this spring. When it went for $139 million, Sotheby’s had to disclose a big loss.

The auction houses sell art, but they also sell credit. When an art buyer borrows money from Sotheby’s to buy something and defaults, that’s public information. It affects the stock price, but the duty to disclose bad news creates a marketing disadvantage for Sotheby’s since Christie’s isn’t constrained in its risk-taking by a lousy headline. It means that the very high-end market will become a bit more secretive, but most of the things going for, say, $50 million or more aren’t worth it. They’re status symbols. Quality and price are divorced. I care about quality, not the big shots who spend $100 million for a name on the wall.

Drahi suggests he will focus especially on online selling. This is bad. A buyer should never bid on art unless he or she has seen it. As a principle, this devalues connoisseurship and abets lazy collecting. It vastly expands the market, I know, but is an assault on good taste, which can only develop from close looking.

Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s have changed in many ways. Both have lost, through design, dozens of specialists. These were invariably longtime hands with deep knowledge in their fields. These people were proud of the long-term relationships they cultivated with collectors who bought and sold. They helped to build collections and to disassemble them in cases of the Three D’s: debt, divorce, and death. It was a calling for some of these good people, most of whom had worked for one house or the other for decades. Their replacements are often younger, more fetching, less informed, and much cheaper. Customer service is worse, and the very top end gets most of the attention. In my opinion, this trend is more readily observable at Sotheby’s. By putting his foot on the online gas pedal, Drahi seems unlikely to change this for the better.

Drahi is an esteemed, savvy collector. Does owning Sotheby’s help his collecting? Well, Sotheby’s vast business-development machine will be his. If the net brings in what he collects, he might very well give himself first crack at it.

Charges of “tainted money” are in the air. The arts philanthropy of the Sackler family provoked protests this spring over the role of a Sackler-owned company, Purdue Pharma, in the worldwide opioid-addiction crisis. Purdue produced and promoted OxyContin, abuse of which has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. This product made the family billions of dollars. The family’s donations to arts organizations are immense. One of the Smithsonian museums is named after Arthur Sackler, the company’s founder who died in 1987.

Protesters at the Guggenheim Museum carried signs saying “Shame on Sackler.” Some staged a die-in. I don’t know why people think this is effective. Since no one ever dies — self-immolation makes a truly sincere statement — it’s silly playacting. Anyway, Nan Goldin, a very fine artist, led the protests. I think she has credibility. The Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Tate Modern in London are among the museums saying they won’t take new Sackler money.

It’s a big family, entire branches of which, among them the Arthur Sackler line, bailed from the pharmaceutical business long before it marketed opioids. They’re the ones with mere millions, though. Purdue Pharma Sacklers are billionaires.

Living in rural Vermont, where everyone knows someone touched by the opioid disaster, I’d suggest that the cast of culprits includes not only manufacturers but government regulators, marketers, doctors, pharmacies, dealers, and, of course, users, who can’t be held as innocents. The Purdue Pharma side of the family, though, certainly looks very bad.

I doubt that the arts institutions forsaking Sackler money had any major gifts in the works. The reality of the big-league, not-for-profit world these days is that they’d do anything for a seven-figure gift. Had big Sackler gifts been on the table, we’d hear museum spokesmen cry “innocent until proven guilty,” cloaked in every unctuous patriotic parable from Washington crossing the Delaware to the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. And no one is talking about taking the Sackler name off gallery walls or museum buildings. Then the museum would have to give money back.

That said, the Sacklers are mortified. Whether by design or collaterally, the protests are part of the mother of all shaming enterprises, given the pending lawsuits and the likelihood of a multibillion-dollar settlement like the one tobacco companies continue to pay. I don’t think Sackler arts philanthropy will ever recover. Look for new and vastly expanded health-related and social-justice philanthropy to dominate their giving.

Whitney Museum of Art trustee Warren Kanders gets my sympathy vote. The left-wing, pro-Palestinian, pro-open-borders group Decolonize This Place is leading the protests. You see, Kanders’s firm, Safariland, sells tear gas to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency to help the border police control crowds trying to enter the country illegally.

I don’t know Kanders. I did look at Safariland’s website. They make lots of things, mostly for personal security but also for police departments and the military. It’s a perfectly legal business. In lots of countries, crowds are dispersed using gunfire. I don’t remember hearing about protests in front of their New York consulates.

Safariland has been selling these things to the federal government for years, which has been using them for years, and Kanders has been a trustee at the Whitney for years. It’s the Resistance that’s new. Kanders is a Republican, which is the real reason he’s targeted. He hasn’t paid protection money to the right rackets.

The degrees of separation between Kanders’s trusteeship at the Whitney and what’s happening at the border are numerous and intricate enough to make my head hurt. It’s an exotic grievance and very selective targeting. Names of scoundrels who delivered the 2008 financial crisis to the world still adorn many New York museums. That’s something worth protesting.

The rich and philanthropic can be as tribal as anyone, so Kanders isn’t going anywhere. He might want to quit, but he can’t. The question is who sits in the driver’s seat, and when it comes to New York’s marquee institutions such as the Whitney, that’s the trustees. Using a trustee’s business as a measure of his or her suitability to serve, which means in this case to hold power, is exceedingly touchy. No one knows where a new standard would lead, especially when it’s developed and enforced by outsiders who aren’t giving money themselves.

The Whitney did something I find bizarre. The museum gave a prime space in the Biennial to Forensic Architecture, a group that used it for a documentary on Safariland, and it’s not flattering. First of all, the documentary is skillfully done, with lots of colorful graphs and edgy camera angles, but it’s not art. It belongs in a film series or a film festival or 60 Minutes. Second, Forensic Architecture is a British not-for-profit. The Biennial is supposed to show the work of Americans.

One of the curators of the Biennial, Rujeko Hockley, signed a staff petition demanding Kanders’s resignation. This is a conflict of interest. Hockley’s private political biases need to be kept in check as she curates a Whitney show. The Biennial is not about her. It’s about the state of American art. And who serves as a Whitney trustee is none of her business. The Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg, whom I admire, made an entirely correct observation: “The trustees don’t tell the staff how to do their jobs,” he said. “Don’t tell them how to do theirs.” It’s the job of trustees to hold fiduciary responsibility and to make big policy decisions. How would Hockley like it if the trustees told her whom to include in her show? She seems to have an intellectual deficit in noodling an issue from A to B.

For gosh sake, the film, in a Whitney show, knocks Kanders, a Whitney trustee. Does the Whitney, or Kanders, think this bit of self-flagellation will do anything except make the museum’s leadership look like fools?

It seems like a waste of time to me. New York’s people have so many problems. Having just been there, I’d say homelessness is a big issue. Rather than participate in shriek-ins over who sits on the Whitney board, the well-educated, mostly young people I’ve seen protesting should spend their time and talent making a difference in another person’s life. Tutor a child. Visit shut-ins. Volunteer for a food drive. Do something real. No, don’t set yourself on fire. Make a direct impact by helping another human being, one-on-one. It’s the most gratifying thing in the world.

De Young Museum in San Francisco (Library of Congress)

Dede Wilsey, the longtime chair of the board of San Francisco’s superb public museum system, announced in early June that she’s retiring. Like almost everything in San Francisco, museum governance is weird. Its two flagship museums — the De Young Museum and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor — are owned and funded by the local government, with considerable help from a museum-specific foundation. Wilsey ruled this serpentine blend of the public and the private with the pizzazz of Cleopatra, the ferocity of Boudicca, and the grit of Catherine the Great.

Philanthropic autocrats aren’t unique. Sometimes, one key trustee accumulates all the power. Sometimes it’s money buying clout. Sometimes, it’s the person who founded the museum. Often, it’s simply force of personality. It means the director becomes a courtier. He or she works for one person. That makes things simple, as long as you stay on the Grand Poobah’s wavelength.

Wilsey probably meddled in day-to-day museum management — and meddled in places she shouldn’t. As a trustee, she probably made unorthodox or untoward demands on the staff. Years ago, Tom Hoving told me he was summoned every few weeks to visit Metropolitan Museum of Art trustee and mega donor Irwin Untermyer to trim his toenails. Some perspective is in order.

Dede Wilsey is a heroine. She’s been pressed to retire for years, and unfairly so. Twice in the 1990s, San Francisco voters rejected a bond issue paying for a multimillion-dollar renovation of the De Young after it was irretrievably ruined in the 1989 earthquake. Wilsey, in a display of profound civic spiritedness, led the drive to raise $200 million privately to do what needed to be done and what the voters wouldn’t do: build a new, world-class museum befitting San Francisco, a great city.

And once she raised the money and the beautiful new museum was built, Wilsey did something equally heroic, as well as exceedingly optimistic. She turned the keys over to City Hall, aside from New Orleans and possibly De Blasio’s New York the most incompetently run place in the country. Now, that’s virtue excusing a multitude of sins.

As far as I’m concerned, she can stay as long as she wants, and the pearl clutchers can learn to live with it. She’s one of the museum’s best assets. She can get big bucks out of anyone, she has good taste, and she loves museums.

In the realm of tempests in teapots, or water bottles with rinds, in late May a Boston public-school chaperone taking a group of African-American students to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston misunderstood a guard’s instructions to her group that “no water bottles were allowed in the galleries.” She thought he said “watermelons” instead of “water bottles” and construed this as a racial slur. “Water bottles,” “watermelons,” “waterboarding” . . . the English language is just too darn subtle, or maybe she left her ear trumpet home.

I wonder if she’d ever been in a museum. According to news reports, none of the students had. Every group gets the “no water bottle, no backpacks, no food, no flash” talk, whether they’re from Dorchester or Beacon Hill.

Further accusations followed, among them that the students were tailed by guards. Two random visitors supposedly said one of the students looked like a stripper. The chaperone went public and a furor ensued. Bonfire of the Vanities comes to the Hub.

After an internal investigation, the two visitors were barred from the museum for making a “racially tinged” comment. Is it “racially tinged” to say someone looks like a stripper? I must have missed that theme in the million times I’ve listened to the Gypsy soundtrack. The MFA won’t name them because the museum knows it’ll get sued. No guards were disciplined. That would entail a feud with their union. The museum hired a former Massachusetts attorney general to conduct an independent review, on top of the internal investigation it did. Everyone in authority at the museum apologized, and everyone not in authority is going to sensitivity training. The MFA’s director is from Canada, where offending someone, anyone, is a mortal sin.

In museums these days, cameras roll nearly everywhere. No one seems very interested in making the tapes public, including the local press.

What really happened is a mystery we might never resolve, but guards have been told never, ever to suggest water bottles are prohibited in the MFA galleries. Perrier, Pellegrino, and Poland Spring, you’ve got your first-ever sanctuary museum.

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