Galleries need to pay for shows at museums

Paintings by Mark Grotjahn at The Forever Now, a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Museums are asking galleries to help pay for shows featuring the artists the galleries represent.
Paintings by Mark Grotjahn at The Forever Now, a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Museums are asking galleries to help pay for shows featuring the artists the galleries represent.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK • Galleries have always provided scholarly support for museums exhibiting their artists' work. Now, they are expected to provide money too.

In today's exploding art market, amid diminishing corporate donations and mounting exhibition costs, non-profit museums have been leaning more heavily on commercial galleries for larger amounts of money - anywhere from US$5,000 (S$6,900) to US$200,000 each time - to help pay for shows featuring the work of the artists the galleries represent.

The increasingly common arrangement has stoked concerns about conflicts of interest and the dilution of a museum's mission to present art for art's sake. Such cosy situations raise the spectre of a pay-to-play model and could give galleries undue influence over what the public gets to see.

"It's really gotten out of hand," said Mr Lawrence Luhring of the Luhring Augustine gallery. "It's the brazenness of it - just the expectation of 'How are you going to contribute?'"

Others say the galleries, which generally earn between 20 and 50 per cent commission, should not complain, since the prestige of museum shows raises the value of an artist's work, boosting sales and gallery profits.

"Museums are giving galleries the best platform for free," said Mr Jeffrey Deitch, the former director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "If the galleries can contribute, why not?"

Examples of gallery support abound. For the Whitney Museum's recent Frank Stella retrospective, the installation of two outdoor sculptures was made possible in part by funds from the Marianne Boesky and Dominique Levy galleries, which jointly represent Stella.

In listing contributors to its current exhibition on New York- based German photographer Vera Lutter, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, names the Gagosian Gallery, which represents Lutter.

When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art mounted a Pierre Huyghe show two years ago - billed as the first major retrospective of the French artist's work - sponsors included the Marian Goodman Gallery, which represents Huyghe.

"Ten years ago, museums rarely asked galleries to support their artists' museum exhibitions," said Ms Lucy Mitchell-Innes of Mitchell- Innes & Nash, who said her gallery is called on to support museum shows once or twice a month for US$5,000 to US$50,000.

The gallery payments, which museums tailor to a dealer's financial capacity, are directed towards expenses such as opening-night dinners, catalogues, shipping and the costs associated with an artist's creating new work for a show.

Museums have long turned to outside support for exhibitions. But as the cost of mounting shows has grown, museums have also sought financial help from galleries. Some worry that museums now favour shows by artists represented by galleries with the deepest pockets.

Dealers say they have come to accept this practice as another cost of doing business and part of their obligation to artists. But small- and mid-size galleries have to stretch themselves thin to stay in the game.

Ultimately, galleries say they feel they have no choice but to play ball, since the potential benefits are mutual. "We all might grumble here or there or sweat and curse a bit," Ms Boesky said. "But we do our best to achieve what needs to be achieved."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2016, with the headline 'Galleries need to pay for shows at museums'. Subscribe