On donating – museums by peterfuchs
September 17, 2008, 7:04 pm
Filed under: Art as Gift Research blog | Tags:
Mosaic of enthroned Christ with Theodore Metochites presenting a model of Chora Church, Istanbul (detail)

Mosaic of enthroned Christ with Theodore Metochites presenting a model of Chora Church, Istanbul (detail)

The Museum of Modern Art opened with six rooms on the twelfth floor of an office building on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, New York, and changed locations more than ten times over the next ten years. One of the three founder, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s husband:  “was opposing the idea of the museum (as well as to modern art itself) and refused to release funds for the venture, which had to be obtained from other sources and resulted in the frequent shifts of location. Nevertheless, he eventually donated the land for the current site of the museum, plus other gifts over time, and thus became in effect one of its greatest benefactors.

Almost each and every major museum in the western world were founded on a gift – a donation of a major collector to the public ,even though by “public” in the 18-19. century the donors meant a small circle of bourgeois art enthusiast. Tate London’s original collection was a gift of Robert Vernon and Harry Tate, Prado in Madrid was a “deposition” of Isabella the II, and the Louvre – as a fine expectation – was opened to the public  as a “benefit of liberty”.

For example, the above mentioned Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) in New York, – the first museum in the US to show European modernism has started its collection with a gift of one drawing and seven prints. Under the guidance of a young and talented curator, Alfred H. Barr from the very beginning, – despite the formidable lack of founds (MoMa was opened just days the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the MoMa become one of the major voice in the contemporary art scene.

We tend to forget how and when our public institutions were established and who was behind their original idea or function, and none the less, collection. It is easy to measure this effect of memory lapse if we watch a television news coverage of any cultural event – they do not say which corporation or Ltd. has provided the funding for the event as it would be considered an advertisement, but the media freely give the name of the institution in the same coverage, the Guggenheim Museum for example, which in fact has the same legal status than any other firm might want to advertise. Of course, the Guggenheim is a foundation, therefore executes a noble purpose by exhibiting artworks and only taking some “advised entry fee”. But let’s not get into the question of the identity and purpose of the nowadays museum giants, but get back the the notion of gift – donating.

Why would anyone donate his/her entire work to the public?
Can anyone imagine a nowadays billionaire or corporation give away the profit in the form of a public donation? Even without the secret but much desired benefit of the unlocking hidden talents of creativity in the field of Contemporary art, expanding the circle of  a possible education cooperation or gaining PR benefits towards higher class customers.

For tax refund or immortality, maybe?
Of course, people can die, corporations can’t – Those who founded the classic collections of our times, could have donated their “inventory of curiosities” to their siblings, who could still benefit from the much needed tax refund (and therefore does not need to sell the collection to the highest bidder) – so this effect could not be the engine to this act of generosity.
Immortality might be a fuel to this action – old colonial exploiters, ruthless factory owners might patch up their good renown by a major contribution to the public.

Eventually it could be that the act of donating can’t fit into the neo-liberal idea of values and market virtues – in which you always have to profit somehow, – and never will, as it is a deed of different times – the age of philanthropy and high expectations towards a better future. Which does not exclude anyone or any organization to donate to the public even nowdays, as long there are no hidden market agenda behind, not because they are not allowed to do so, but because that is not what they will found in arts, as art has to be a gift. Since if it is not, it is not called art any more, it is an investment with given interest rate.


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Good writing. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed my Google News Reader..

Matt Hanson

Comment by Matt Hanson

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