When I heard that the National Portrait Gallery was organizing an exhibition drawn from private collections in the Washington area, I figured it would be a good one to miss. These sorts of community-based shows tend to be mediocre affairs. Institutions mount them in part to reach out to new patrons, and curators — against their better judgment — can be obliged to lower standards to comply with the exigencies of politics and fundraising.
But when I saw “Capital Portraits: Treasures from Washington Private Collections,” I realized that I had been dead wrong. It’s hardly an ingenious or groundbreaking curatorial conceit, but it’s a wonderful show on many levels.
There’s no denying that it’s a miscellany, but the curators have stuck with museum-quality works, many by such top-notch artists such as John Singleton Copley and Gilbert Stuart, Mary Cassatt and William Merritt Chase and Andy Warhol, to mention a few.
A blogger, Tyler Green, condemned me for not attacking the National Portrait Gallery show as a corrupt vanity project. I wish to set the record straight. [See note below.]
In his mini screed, Green equates the National Portrait Gallery exhibition with shows of the collections of commedian Cheech Marin and Greek businessman Dakis Joannou. Had he seen the NPG show — which covers 250 years’ worth of art from dozens of private collectors — he would know that it is a different undertaking from those single-collector contemporary shows. But I bet he hadn’t seen the NPG show when he trashed my take on it.
He certainly didn’t read my article closely. Had he done so he would have noticed the lede about the dangers of private collector loan shows. He’s have acknowledged that I call the show “a miscellany” – not unlike museum permanent collections, it is incomplete and imperfect — but that I conclude that it’s worth seeing because it contains many fine artworks. No, I don’t love every one, but I like a lot of them and enjoyed learning the stories behind their commissions. I thought readers would enjoy the show as well, and it could even result in gifts for the National collections.
Whatever, he had it in for me — as he has for virtually every museum director, curator and journalist.
One of his pet peeves concerns museums exhibiting works that are privately owned. He seems to believe that were it not for his petty moralizing, corruption of curatorial standards would be rife in the land, and tax-exempt public museums would routinely be harnessed for private profit.
In truth, there are few museum professionals insensitive to the ethical issues at stake in exhibiting privately owned works of art. There are occasional lapses of discretion, but neither is any museum professional unaware of the necessity of working with private collectors to borrow their works for public presentation and developing ties that can result in financial support and donations of artworks.
My position on these matters – clear to anyone who reads my criticism and reporting – is that museums should exhibit privately owned works when they are useful to a valid curatorial purpose. I could name dozens of private collection shows that have been well worth mounting, despite their inevitable flattery of the private collectors’ acumen. It is not necessary to secure the works as a gift. Even if great works belong to trustees, museums should not shy away from showing them in a proper context. It’s a matter of judgment.
For the NPG, exhibiting rarely seen portraits from various private collections is a proper function so long as the standards of quality remain high. (That the works were not from trustees of the museum seems to say more about the the board than it does about any deliberate avoidance of potential conflict of interest in presenting property of museum insiders.)
None of this seems to concern Green, who smugly fulminates with opinonations calculated to elicit outrage and attract attention. But as Green’s readers know, he is a classic reactionary. He is wont to glom onto or overheatedly criticize others’ work with glib judgments, often declaring himself “gobsmacked” at the “jaw dropping” perspectives he encounters among his perceived rivals.
Which is not to say that his work is useless – he sometimes draws attention to worthy reads and passes along news items (breathlessly self-promoted as “first on MAN,” a reference his blog’s name Modern Art Notes). But the number of stories that he has deeply researched and properly reported can be counted on the fingers of two hands.
His most original enterprise of late was the museum popularity contest he cooked up as a ruse to increase traffic on his blog. I’m not kidding: he set up mutiple-choice battles among U.S. museums and asked readers to click on their favorites, goading the institutions to alert their on-line followers to “vote” in the meaningless popularity poll. We never got the numbers (probably because turnout was low) and I don’t remember who won. But I do know that this overtly and embarrassingly self-promotional project was laughably dumb — the kind of project one might expect in a highschool social-media class.
Green knows he is not our best guide to what is or is not appropriate to exhibit in museums. He should let more of his readers in on the secret.
Note to readers: Tyler Green wrote to the editor at Louise Blouin Media (which hosts our blogs) to complain that my response to his attack contains inaccuracies. Here are his objections and my responses:
1. Kaufman states: “One of his pet peeves concerns museums exhibiting works that are privately owned.”
Green objects: I have never objected to museums exhibiting artworks that are privately owned. I have consistently objected to significant museums launching exhibitions solely motivated by who owns what — and in this case where they live — rather than by art historical or scholarly inquiry.
Kaufman responds: The statement is accurate. Green frequently voices concern when museums exhibit works that are privately owned. In particular, he condemns exhibitions of single-owner collections, one category of exhibitions of works that are privately owned that has peeved him on more than one occasion. I am not aware if he also has condemned regionally based private-collection shows.
In any case, not all single-owner or regional surveys of privately owned works are objectionable. The public, including me, has benefited from numerous worthwhile exhibitions in both categories: “Sixteenth Century Drawings in New York Collections” at the Metropolitan Museum did no disservice to its audience. Neither did the Morgan Library’s “New York Collects: Drawings and Watercolors, 1900–1950,” or the Art Institute of Chicago’s presentation of Italian Renaissance and Baroque drawings belonging to Jean Goldman. Not every exhibition need illustrate an academic conceit. If that were the case there would be no reason to look in the permanent collection galleries, which are invariably filled with historical gaps. If privately owned work is of exceptional quality that can be sufficient reason to show it.
2. Kaufman: “I thought readers would enjoy the show as well, and it could even result in gifts for the National collections.”
Green: This is false. The United States has no “National collections.” American museums that has the word “national” in its name – be it the National Gallery of Art, the National Portrait Gallery or the National World War II Museum – is incorporated independently of the federal government.
This is nitpicking. I am aware that the Smithsonian, though chartered and funded largely by the federal government, is technically independent. My reference is to the collections held by the Smithsonian, which for good reason have been described as “the nation’s attic.”
3. Kaufman: “[T]he number of stories that he has deeply researched and properly reported can be counted on the fingers of two hands.”
Green: This is false. MAN [Green’s Modern Art Notes blog] has published for nearly ten years and has “deeply researched and properly reported” scores of stories.
The figure of speech connotes a limited number. The depth of research and reporting is a matter of opinion, not fact.
4. Kaufman: “We never got the numbers (probably because turnout was low) and I don’t remember who won.”
Green: This is false. On August 30, 2010 I posted the results and reported that over 5,000 people voted in the final matchup.
I overlooked the post in which Green provided numbers for the “final matchup” of his museum popularity contest. Here he graciously provides the figures.