Public Vs.Private

J.J. Charlesworth on whether it might be time to redefine the role of the public museum

By J.J. Charlesworth

‘The purpose of the public museum is to ensure the long-term availability and display of art.’ With his first sentence, Chris Dercon, soon-to-be-former director of Tate Modern, had already lost the argument. Back in June last year, Dercon gave a speech as part of a symposium made up of international art-museum big-cheeses, at the private Louis Vuitton Foundation, to consider such burning questions as ‘What are the challenges facing public and private museum collections today?’, ‘Who makes art history now?’ and ‘What is the impact of the growing role played by the art market in this field?’ In his speech, recently published in The Art Newspaper, Dercon rehearsed a well-worn case for the superiority of public-museum values over the apparently more dubious motives of the private collector and the ever-encroaching ranks of private museum foundations. Speaking darkly of ‘the new pseudo-philanthropists’, Dercon warned that ‘we public museums cannot afford to give up to them the production of memory and the writing of art history’.

Perhaps a little jaded by his own experience handling the tricky interface between Tate Modern’s public role and the private interests that enter it, Dercon tried to reassert the authority of the public museum over the demands of private interest: ‘I feel that we must establish new standards for cooperation between private collectors and public museums... The collector who works with a public museum must accept the museum as a place of symbolic value – in the long term – for art,’ Dercon finger-wagged sternly.

Perhaps, the museum’s role in monopolising value judgements is itself a bit of a problem

What’s interesting about Dercon’s defensive and rather schoolmasterish chiding of all those naughty collectors and private art foundations out there is the complacent sense of assurance that the museum does, in fact, hold the rights to the ‘production of memory’ and the ‘writing of art history’, and holds the sole licence for being a ‘place of symbolic value’. Demanding that museums claim the supreme right to decide what is of quality, rather than a different bunch of private institutions, doesn’t even start to acknowledge that, perhaps, the museum’s role in monopolising value judgements is itself a bit of a problem.

After all, if museums make qualitative judgements about what should be kept in their collections, what should be shown and how it should be understood, they are making claims about the artistic and cultural value of some works over others. And yet no one form of institution should, in a healthy public culture, believe itself to be the prime mover in that process of evaluation. And indeed, up until only relatively recently, big public art museums did not wield such great authority over contemporary artistic activity. While museums traditionally employed curators to preserve and research the knowledge of historical collections of art, those artworks were produced and given value outside of the machinery of the museum. What was of value was determined elsewhere – in the enthusiasms of private collectors, in the response of the public to exhibitions and, especially in the modern era, by the independent activities of artists setting up their own exhibitions, and their own relationships with patrons and publics. Museums, charged with preserving the art of the past, always lagged behind – the Tate included. Half a century went by after Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) before the Tate Gallery gave the Frenchman a retrospective.

Dercon seems to forget that many big museums like his were established on the basis of the enthusiasms and interests of private collectors. The process of becoming more ‘museological’ is a recent innovation, especially as curating has become an ever more active and interventionist occupation, and the museum has come to see itself as a key site for the production and presentation of contemporary art, rather than simply a custodian of the art of the past.

Really, Dercon’s opening assertion that the museum’s function is to ensure the long-term availability and display of art is now the least of it. If this were truly its purpose, it would accept and declare that its choices of presentation, especially of contemporary work at the moment of being produced, were only provisional, subject to multiple voices and different interpretations, and endlessly open to revision and rethinking. At the core of that, however, would be a faith in the notion that art’s value can only be determined by open, critical discussion among a diverse and often fractured public – not a bureaucratic arrogance that declares that value should be assigned by internal committees of career curators with art-theory degrees.

Ironically, while Dercon and no doubt many other of his art museum colleagues will decry the cynicism of collectors who understand that museums add cultural value so that they can add monetary value, it is only because museums have cultivated the status of legitimiser that this can happen. So why not build your own art foundation? Doing so only mimics the monopolising effect of value-making the public museum never had a right to in the first place. 

This article was first published in the January & February 2016 issue of ArtReview.