Art Museums, Dealers Oh-So-Close to Controversy

Article excerpt

A nasty storm is building in the art world.

It's centered on the cozy working relationships between public-funded museums and for-profit dealers, collectors and auction houses.

The first gusts swept through the art world in October when New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani condemned the "Sensation" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art but could not shut it down.

The exhibit was from the collection of English advertising executive Charles Saatchi, a gallery owner and collector. The controversy sparked by the exhibit's content and funding increased the fame and value of the paintings themselves.

Now, a similar gust has caught the Art Gallery of the University of Maryland and an exhibit there from a collection of Howard Frank, 58, dean of the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, and his wife, Jane, an adjunct professor at the school. She also directs "World of Wonders," an art firm specializing in the same original science fiction and fantasy art work the Franks collect. Mrs. Frank represents 17 of the 41 artists being shown.

Exhibits like those in Maryland and Brooklyn provide artists and private collectors an opportunity to display their works publicly in an attractive environment. When successful, these shows raise the value of individual paintings offered for sale. One insider says exhibits like these can increase the value of paintings from 20 percent to 50 percent.

"Possible Futures, Science Fiction Art From the Frank Collection," the current show in the Art Gallery, includes 64 paintings, eight books and six magazines loaned by the Franks.

Although several museum directors and curators will only speak off-the-record, local art circles are buzzing with questions about conflicts of interest. Are the Franks given preference over other exhibitors because they are respected faculty members at the university? Who benefits from the show - the Franks, the artists, the university? What, if anything, does the public gain?

The key issue is whether a not-for-profit institution such as the Art Gallery of the University of Maryland, with a tax-exempt 501(c)3 status and supported partly with funds from the state of Maryland, should be associated with a for-profit art enterprise such as Worlds of Wonder.

Similar queries were raised in connection with the showing of the Saatchi collection of cutting-edge art by young English artists. It turned out that Mr. Saatchi had made what was to be an anonymous $160,000 gift to the Brooklyn Museum to help cover insurance costs. The museum also received donations from private dealers who represented artists in the show.

A $50,000 gift was made by Christie's auction house, which, in the past, had sold art from the Saatchi collection. Christie's, along with its competitor Sotheby's, currently is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for suspected collusion and price fixing. Top officials at both auction houses recently resigned.

All this has not fostered public confidence in the art world's leaders.

Commenting on the uproar over the Saatchi showing, the Wall Street Journal remarked: "New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's attack on the Brooklyn Museum of Art has laid bare the art world's most open secret: The line between art and commerce has become increasingly blurred."

The Journal also reported that art dealers, collectors and auction houses regularly pressure museums to show works they own.

"There's even an unofficial name for it in the art world: It's unofficially called the `exhibition effect,' and insiders play it for a profit."

The New Yorker magazine raised concerns in its October 1999 article, "Money Is in the Eye of the Art Dealer." "The art controversy over `Sensation' is useful because it focuses the public mind on important issues corrupting the art world," it said. "Those who scream `censorship' at Mayor Giuliani's determination to withdraw taxpayer support from the show, use the word carelessly. …