Washington Portraits – and a correction about my take on museums and private collections

“Capital Portraits: Treasures from Washington Private Collections,” at the National Portrait Gallery is hardly an ingenious or groundbreaking curatorial conceit, but it's a display of high-quality works by John Singleton Copley and Gilbert Stuart, Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, Andy Warhol and others that otherwise would not be accessible to the public. Blogger Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes condemns me for not trashing the show. I respond to him here.
Gene Davis, Self-portrait, 1982, oil on canvas, 90 x 110 inches, Xavier Equihua collection.
Gene Davis, Self-portrait, 1982, oil on canvas, 90 x 110 inches, Xavier Equihua collection.

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.

Click here or one of the images from the show to read my review in The Washington Post.

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.]

John Singleton Copley, portrait of Myles Cooper (1737–1785), oil on canvas, c. 1780–85, private collection.
John Singleton Copley, portrait of Myles Cooper (1737–1785), oil on canvas, c. 1780–85, private collection.

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.

Gilbert Stuart, portrait of Elizabeth Bowdoin, Lady Temple (1750–1809), oil on wood panel, 1806, private collection
Gilbert Stuart, portrait of Elizabeth Bowdoin, Lady Temple (1750–1809), oil on wood panel, 1806, private collection.

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.

Rembrandt Peale, portrait of Catharine Peabody Gardner (1808–1883), oil on canvas, 1827, private collection
Rembrandt Peale, portrait of Catharine Peabody Gardner (1808–1883), oil on canvas, 1827, private collection.

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.

Jason Edward Kaufman

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.

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8 Responses

  1. Personally, I was gratified to view a private collection of Dutch Art at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA recently. The variety and scope of both paintings and carved furniture was breathtaking! This is a show of 15th century work.

  2. I think it’s a good thing when critics take positions on issues.

    I read what you wrote. The show was long-planned and I was thoroughly familiar with it. It is indeed a form of a vanity show: An exhibition motivated by who owns what — and in this case where they live — rather than by art historical or scholarly inquiry. (Also, you are in error: I have never advocated that art museums not exhibit privately owned artworks in this context.) Art museums should be more than somewhere for the wealthy to show off their baubles to the less fortunate.

  3. LMAO! TG, even more than his hearthrob CK(christopher knight at the L A Times), loves to repackage old ideas and the claim them as his own, after dumbing them down for his blogs less than knowlegable masses. Educated, as in trained monkeys by the art academies, but not of the world we live in and have come from. Even when right like about Matisse’ Blue Nude, he claims “insights” that have been around for decades.

    Having a “playoff” of art works of the later 20th century and having the hypocrtically environment disrupting hubris of the Spiral Jetty as winner says it all.

    I agree, politics should be taken out as much as possible of both left and right, and see what one is whining about first before writing. The show here at MoCA of street art is far better than that of TGs heroes, though still damning with faint praise. At least it isnt completely irrelevant, just for too narrow a basse to be great art , which seeks the essense of being human,no matter the culture, race,class or education. Just because Deitch is a self and patron serving nimrod doesnt mean he is always wrong. Even TG has his moments.

    TG is just a voyeur writing for other effettes, when we need virile and passionate art after an age of tedious self indulgence. One must truly have good judgment before anything else. All artists judge ,its how we learn by strenghtening intuition. Creating the automatic shit detector as Hemingway called it. We must surround ourselves with only the highest denominator, the most passionate work of all mankind, defining who WE are, exploring nature and reaching for what we call god, Purpose.

    Tedious and boring things to the clever, smart, and witty spawn of todays art academies. The salon reborn, paper created pharisees by the legion. When true creative artists of every era and culture are as Cezanne said, an indepedant priesthood who follow only truth. For that is where beauty lies, in exploring and finding her many incarnations.

    TG is a trivia buff with dreams of grandeur. Unfortunately his ilk are dominant in the contemporary art world, as his blog title is a misnomer. It is Contempt Entertainment Trivialities, he seldom posts about Modern unless belittling it with his ever so erudite perceptions.

    So wait til an exhibition is put on, I hate the use of the word “show” as it has come to be a showbiz routine these days, with swarms of curators and apologists clamoring to appease their gods, the monied classes. The rich are neither more nor less likely to be right than anyone else, lets see what they got first. Then decide, and go with those who have a proven track record. If an insitituion and its board have a high batting average, lets go with it and see how it plays out. Instead of seeking “new” trends, which are usually just retread failures.

    Though anything that seeks to prop up the status quo forever must be put aside, as life and art evolve. But cant be forced into nice little cubicles of easily inevested and tradible commodities. Which is TGs world.

    Save the spiritual and color filled Watts Towers(Nuestro Pueblo) tear down the drab and decadent rebuilt Academies.

  4. I see absolutely nothing wrong with exhibiting works from private collections as long as it is not a “vanity project.” If a collector wants to show off his entire stockpile (Eli Broad), let him build a museum (which Eli is). I am on the fence as to the Washington show, but I must admit that having the opportunity for the public to see works they may never have known existed, and might certainly never see in their lifetimes is quite an attraction. For this reason alone, we might tolerate even shows which are decidedly vain in motivation.

  5. The idea that collectors shouldn’t be indulged comes from a standpoint that collectors don’t matter, that art is somehow created in a vaccuum. Anybody with a good understanding of art history should know that collectors and dealers are part and parcel of the history of art: the Medicis, the popes, anybody who ever commissioned a portrait, etc., etc.

  6. Seeing TGs replies to you, his articles are always personal conjecture masquerading as facts, all self serving and attempting, and failing, to be Hip.

    And often claiming as original “concepts’ of his own hifalutin imagination are actually art book presentations of artists, i have seen many in my own old books, of which i have many. He simply minimalizes them into nothingness, so barely leaving a trace of reality.

  7. Very interesting information! I have been reading on here for awhile off and on, and I finally wanted to make my first comment and reveal myself 😉 I really like some of the news I’ve seen here.

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.

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