Art world: Ego-seums are coming to Europe
24 June 2010
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
A rift is emerging in the European art scene: as public establishments languish under budget cuts, private museums are booming. But the latter are generally showcases for self-serving oligarchs, warns the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Museums, places where our society portrays and projects itself, may be becoming an endangered species.
This past May will go down as a fateful month in the history of European museums. An unknown culprit broke into the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris one night and, cool as a cucumber, cut five masterpieces by Braque, Léger, Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso out of their frames. The canvasses are worth about a hundred million euros all told. Afterwards people puzzled over why anyone would steal such famous works that can’t be sold legally anywhere. The answer is “artnapping”: art thieves squeeze a museum, or rather its insurers, who would rather hand a lavish sum to a middle-man who guarantees the return of the works than award a much higher indemnity to the owners. Only – and here’s the rub – there’s no insurer for the pictures in Paris, which hung in the museum uncovered – and actually unprotected: the alarm system had apparently been out of order since March.
The Paris heist goes to show how outrageously underfunded Europe’s museums are. A rift is opening up in the European art scene: as public establishments languish under budget cuts and ebbing sponsorship, private museums are booming right, left and centre. Billionaire François Pinault, who owns Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent et al., is showing off his ginormous art collection in two opulent private museums in Venice simultaneously. Bernard Arnault, owner of Louis Vuitton, is planning to erect an exhibition building for his foundation in Paris. And over in Germany, swanky private venues are springing up like extravagant mushrooms. Collectors are now vying to come up with the most original showcases for their hoards, ever since Christian Boros converted a World War II bunker into an exhibition space. Having your very own museum in which to flaunt your treasures has become the ultimate status symbol.
Private collections all look the same
The balance has shifted. While private collectors are whooping it up on a champagne and vernissage rush, public museums are now in dire straits. The Hamburg Kunsthalle has just announced it will be temporarily closing its “Gallery of the Present” unless it can come up with desperately needed funding soon: the City is shaving €220,000 off its budget. So does this spell the end of the public museum? Hamburg Kunsthalle’s director Hubertus Gassner puts it in a bitter nutshell: art collectors used to donate money and art to public museums, now they prefer to build museums themselves.
In the wake of the disintegration of civil society, he says, the museum as an institution could conceivably go by the board. Be that as it may, one thing’s for sure: the new temples to private taste certainly can’t replace the public museum. Many big private collections show an uncanny mutual resemblance: collectors tend to enlist gallery owners, who proceed to buy up whatever gets stamped “good art” lately and happens to be on the market at the moment. These streamlined collections are a far cry from museums as the collective visual memory of a given society, places where experts select, discuss and present works of art in an aesthetic setting.
No future for collective remembrance?
Museums like the Hamburg Kunsthalle, which was founded by munificent patrons, were places where civil society was portrayed and projected outside the remit of private oligarchic interests. Only a public institution with input from various directors and custodians and donations from various benefactors can put together such a lively and diverse collection as the one at Berlin’s New National Gallery, where the viewer gets a powerful sense of how multifaceted the modern movement was in Berlin, and what 1920s Berlin was really all about.
Is there no future for this culture of collection and collective remembrance? Is art becoming a private affair? That is to be feared in an age in which one public institution has to shut down for financial reasons, another gets cleared out like an open wallet, and a third, the New Museum in New York, is surrendered by its clueless directors to self-aggrandising private collectors like [Greek tycoon] Dakis Joannou. On the other hand, however, the art boom over the past few years has bred a new generation of smaller-scale collectors and aficionados. Were museums to pay more attention to them, they could again become what they once were: places for forms and pictures in which society portrays itself.