European Registrars Conference 2016 – Backstage – What Viewers Shouldn’t Find Out
Julia Voss – Art Department Head, Franfurter Allssemeine Zeitung, Germany
On the second day of the conference I attended the fascinating talk by Julia Voss asking us to think about what visitors need to know about the world of art, galleries and museums that might present museum professionals and visitors alike with moral questions and dilemmas.
Most visitors to our museums and galleries might assume that each work has been placed in an exhibition after a long curatorial reasoning. However, as registrars we know that the location or inclusion of an object in an exhibition may be due to the environment, lender’s conditions, the size of the work, security arrangements, what it is made of etc. So even on a very fundamental level, there are ‘behind the scenes’ elements that the public are not aware of that might dictate how an exhibition is curated or how objects are displayed. However, there are also other less straightforward reasons as to why certain works may be included in an exhibition.
Julia also identified two ‘species’ of the art world – the majority of people who interact and inhabit this world are the public or public minded bodies. Their perception of cultural organisations is of enlightenment, for education and for the good of everyone. This majority take the front row, as it were. Then there are the minority of those who interact with the art world, those who see the works as financial investments and for their own personal interests. The visitor doesn’t get to know about his side of art, but should they? Julia argues that yes, visitors should be made aware of who owns major works of art and how inclusion of them in an exhibition or event can impact on the financial value of works.
When work is displayed with the label ‘Private Collection’ it gives the lender anonymity and visitors are not aware of any conflicts of interest or added value that is being given to the art. Julia cited that in the United States in 2015 private museums received a letter from the Senate stating that all private museums founded by banks, art dealers etc. were to provide the government with details of opening hours, visitor numbers and access to collections. These letters were prompted by a newspaper article questioning the right of private museums to receive tax exemptions regarding their role in serving the public. The question that arises is that are private collectors using the guise of public welfare to turn their collections into private wealth? By displaying your collection in the form of a public gallery are you making it more financially valuable?
For the Venice Biennale http://www.labiennale.org/en/art/news/22-11.html major collectors lend large installations of art. Is this with the intention of nurturing their value? Using the art like the stock or assets of a company being nurtured on the markets? If so should the work be displayed at art fairs instead of public exhibitions? If the financial markets are determining the contents of exhibitions, then the visitors should be aware of why they are shown certain collections and not others. In some cases, lenders may be lending for tax exemptions or to raise the profile and therefore to raise the kudos and value of the work.
Julia argued that the public should know who lends major works of art, so that they know who owns the work and the potential motives behind the loan so that the public can make an informed choice about which exhibitions they visit. It would also make sure the lenders were transparent about their practises and use of art. I wondered if elsewhere in Europe there are Codes of Ethics for museums and galleries, such as the UK MA’s code http://www.museumsassociation.org/ethics/code-of-ethics and how strictly they are enforced?
To give this talk further context I attended the showing of the documentary Beltracchi – The Art of Forgery, http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/0/32608939
which explored further the ethical dilemmas that face the world of art, galleries and museums. The prolific forger Beltracchi argues why is it wrong for him to make forgeries when everyone benefits – the art critic and academic have new material to study, the expert and art dealer make a profitable commission fee, the collector has fantastic art to put on the wall and the Beltracchi can make a living. You are almost seduced into his argument before you realise it is ethically wrong and dishonest.
The film highlighted the shadier side of the art market and how there are definitely people involved who do not put the public benefit as the first priority of their activities. Food for thought for all registrars when negotiating loan contracts…..
By Lyn Wall, Registrar, National Museums Scotland