Do Finders Need to be Keepers?
Only a few art museums in the United States are non-collecting institutions, instead focusing their resources on the organization and presentation of works of art. Most of them concentrate on exhibitions of the art of the new and the now, of art-that-is-not-yet-history. They concentrate on finding this work and showing it to the public today, rather than keeping it in a collection for the publics benefit today and tomorrow. To be a non-collecting institution has decided advantages and disadvantages for the institution and its audiences.
Installation view of Josef Albers a 1965 exhibition in the Contemporary Arts Museum Houstons first building
Where did we come from?
The first museums in the young United States were cabinets of curiositiescollections of works of art, historical artifacts, scientific apparatuses and examples of odd or rare naturally-occurring phenomena. By the 1860s and 1870s, however, when institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., first opened their doors to the public, the art museum had separated itself and its collections from institutions focused on history, science or oddities. The founders of these art museums viewed them as homes for works of art that had value in and of themselves and as institutions with an educational function, albeit a rather patronizing one: these objects, these works of art wouldit was anticipatedinstruct the public in matters of good taste.
As art museums focused on the acquisition and exhibition of works of art, the context in which these objects were shown began to assume a greater role. Exhibitions that focused around changing configurations that established artistic context or commonalities of style and/or subject assumed more importance. But, just as the public became accustomed to viewing these collections of ancient artifacts, European historical material and the painting and sculpture of their new Republic (largely mid-century American landscape painting or portraits of the founders), change arrived from across the Atlantic. In the words of writer and critic Dave Hickey, the tsunami of modernisma great wave a new artwas gathering momentum. Subsequent to important events showcasing this new work from Europe (such as the 1914 Armory Show) and to the hue and cry of derision from the general public that followed, a flurry of new institutions were established by modernisms advocates in America to espouse this art.
In New York, three now-iconic museums devoted to modern art were founded within ten years of each other: The Museum of Modern Art in 1929, the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1930 and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (then the Museum of Non-Objective Painting) in 1937. All were intended to show and collect the new work and to educate the public about the exciting and revolutionary developments of modernism. All were far less concerned with elevating public taste than with proselytizing about modern art and designs place in everyday life.
Almost simultaneously, a number of non-collecting institutions were established outside New York to focus on exhibitions of this new work. Modernisms advocates felt that its study and exposure to audiences would assist the public to understand and accept it. The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago had evolved by the 1930s into an institution devoted exclusively to the exhibition of the new art. The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (ICA Boston) and the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati (CAC) were established in the same decade1936 and 1939 respectively. And, in 1948, seven Houston citizensbusiness executives, architects, designers, and other professionalsfounded the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (then known as the Contemporary Arts Association of Houston) to show the new art they had learned about in New York and Europe during and after World War II. All of them, including the fledgling Houston museum, advanced a rigorous modernist agenda, and all were non-collecting institutions, focusing exclusively on exhibitions of modern art and design. Over the ensuing years, education programs assumed a particularly important place in the missions of these institutions: lectures, discussion groups and various kinds of classes, it was thought, were especially important to assist the public in understanding and valuing this often challenging and unfamiliar work.
The Art Guys: Think Twice, a 1995 exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
These new, modernist-oriented, non-collecting institutions (which are today often compared to European kunsthalles, or exhibition spaces) presented new art in a scholarly, dignified and serious setting, with museum standards of care in presentations and publications. The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, like the ICA Boston, had a special formative relationship with New Yorks Museum of Modern Art. The Houston museums founders, for example, sought the counsel of Alfred BarrMoMAs legendary director and curatorabout the kind of building they should construct in order to meet standards necessary to borrow objects from that already well known and respected New York institution. A number of the earliest shows at both the Houston and Boston museums were either organized by MoMA or contained significant objects borrowed from MoMAs collection.
Other non-collecting institutions followed these three early pioneers in the 1960s, two of the best-known being the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania (ICA Philadelphia) in 1963, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (MCA Chicago) in 1967. By the late 1970s, however, the limitations of the non-collecting model had become increasingly evident and two new and important contemporary art museums established in that decade were founded as collecting institutions, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, which was chartered 1977, and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (L.A. MOCA), which began the planning for a new institution in 1979. The New Museum adopted an experimental collection methodology, vowing to deaccession its holdings every ten years in order to remain on the edge of new developments in contemporary art. Almost simultaneously, the MCA Chicago changed its non-collecting mission and began to collect in the early 1980s.
Where are we now?
Today, there are only a few significant, non-collecting museums remaining in the U.S. Like the MCA Chicago, the ICA Bostonthe Contemporary Arts Museum Houstons oldest sister institutionwill end its six-decade non-collecting policy as it transitions into a new and more visible facility. It plans to acquire work from its own exhibitions for a collection to be housed in its new building. Just last year, The New Museum mounted, for the first time, an exhibition of its self-admitted unseen and uneven collection, which had never been deaccesioned as originally envisioned. Its board and staff have announced a new building and their intention to refocus on a reinvigorated collection program with no mention of periodic deaccessioning.1 These recent, important policy initiatives from two of our most important contemporary art institutions beg the question of the advantages and disadvantages of being a non-collecting museum.
Museums that remain non-collecting still see their position as an advantage to the institution and to the public. They are able to focus their resourcesstaff, facility and moneyon exhibitions and education programs rather than the acquisition and care of a permanent collection. There are, however, broad consequences to this position, some relevant today, and some important for the future.
Installation view of the seminal Combine paintings of Robert Rauschenberg in an exhibition at the CAAs 1949 A-frame, modernist building by McKee & Kamrath
To collect or not to collect: that is the question.
While non-collecting museums are able to devote their resources to exhibitions, they can be at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to securing loans for these shows. A collecting institution has a much clearer, quid pro quo relationship to its fellows that is based on reciprocity. A non-collecting museum must rely instead on the reputation and significance of its exhibitions, publications and programs, on its record of high standards of care for objects (professional art handling, security and climate control), on the prestige of its professional staff and on its clear and well-conceived communications program.
Non-collecting museums are not without strengths where loans are concerned, as they have strong relationships with regional and national collectors and can often be of assistance to collecting institutions in approaching these potential lenders. Because the very existence of the programs of non-collecting museums depends on the generosity of private collectors who lend works of art to their exhibitions, these institutions often have deep and wide-ranging relationships with important collectors in their region and beyond. The counsel of the non-collecting institutions professional staff can be paramount to a collecting museum, especially if the requesting institutions reputation, staff or project is unfamiliar to a particular private collector.
The lack of holdings from ones own previous exhibitions can also be seen as a disadvantage of the non-collecting position. In a sense, the non-collecting institution lacks evidence of its own history. The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston is fortunate, however, to be in a city with two collegial, significant collecting institutionsThe Menil Collection and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, both of which have consistently and deliberately purchased or been given work from the Contemporary Arts Museum Houstons exhibitions. Mutual supporters have thus ensured that important works of art stay in the city. This sense of community and cooperation has existed in Houston for many years, and while it is exceedingly rare in the art world at large, it is an advantage both to the institutions and to the public we serve.
View of Richard Longs 1996 installation in the Museums 1972 building
Board members, supporters and membersincluding those of modest resourcesof non-collecting museums who purchase work from its exhibitions for their own collections are critical to the communities served by non-collecting museums. Their collecting activities ensure that works of art from exhibitions become permanent assets for the community.2
However gratifying it may be that works of art remain in the communityin the hands of a private collector or a public institutionit would be disingenuous to say that the choices made by individual collectors and other museums always duplicate the choices a non-collecting museum might make for itself if it were to acquire works of art. Choices made by others will probably focus in a different direction than choices the professional staff of a non-collecting institution might make. In any case, it can be disappointingsometimesto see objects the staff strongly believes are among the best of their kind drive away in a moving van because the museum doesnt collect.
It can also be more challenging for donors and board members to remain married to a non-collecting institution, especially if their focus is on the eventual donation of their own collection, or if they are highly motivated and want to see certain works remain accessible as a continuing public resource. Additionally, in a conventional museum, these individuals tend to stand by the institutionthrough good times and bad, through philosophical disagreements and personality clashesdue to proprietary feelings towards the objects theyve assisted the museum in acquiring, or because of plans to make it the eventual public home for works from their collection. At a non-collecting museum, if patrons find themselves at odds with the current board of trustees, administration or a particular curator, if they are disturbed or disappointed by a particular exhibition, they may find it less troubling to move on to other philanthropic interests. Furthermore, as professional staff members encourage and assist collectors, stoking their interest in contemporary art and artists, the collector may eventually decide to just move ondiverting their resources to a museum they believe is more focused on the permanent than the temporary.
Supporters who stay close to non-collecting museums tend to be those who embrace experimentation, value new ideas, actively foster the exposure of those ideas in the community at large andultimatelywant to see and know about the new and the now before it becomes established. They are interested in artists and in the ongoing dialogue between artists and audiences. They value the intellectual challenge inherent in contemporary art forms of all kinds and are often equally dedicated to contemporary expression and innovation in literature, dance and music, and see an institution with a contemporary mission as leading the charge to educate a broader audience in all these disciplines.
The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston is fortunate to have many intrepid supporters who have been devoted to the museumand its missionsince its inception. They appreciate adventure and experimentation, and are particularly involved in generating new ideas and new ways of approaching problems in todays world. They believe in the relevance of contemporary art as a resource for the entire community and in the power of contemporary art to address charged and difficult problems. Because of their entrepreneurial spirit and belief in the power of contemporary art, the museum has been able to grow and organize increasingly ambitious exhibitions, publications and education programs for its audiences.
Matthew Ritchie: Proposition Player on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston through March 14, 2004, an installation planned especially for the spaces of the Museums large Brown Foundation Gallery
Regional artists have been important constituents of contemporary art museums since the early twentieth century. They have often been involved in these institutions as staff members, have occasionally organized exhibitions and have had their own work shown in the context of international developments in contemporary art. While both non-collecting and collecting institutions are able to support regional artists in a variety significant ways (including them in professional-level exhibitions and publications, introducing them to collectors or bringing their work to the attention of audiences outside the region), only a traditional institution can support an artists career by purchasing their work for the permanent collection. Conversely, if a non-collecting institution was required to devote its resources to collecting activity, it is unlikely that these institutions could produce the same quantity or quality of exhibitions for regional artists that they do today.3
Acquisition activity and collection maintenance are as expensive as they are necessary. Not only does an institution need funds for acquisitions (otherwise it may end up with an unfocused and uneven collection), it needs resources for the maintenance, storage and conservation of works of art. Some while ago, I read that it costs the typical art museum approximately $1800 per object, per year for each work of art in its collection. This figure accounts for both direct and indirect costs, such as climate control, inventory and record keeping activity, research, storage facilities and equipment, conservation surveys (if not actual treatment) and staff time. For contemporary institutions focused primarily on exposing new art or considering important art from the recent past, the diversion of revenue to the acquisition and maintenance of a collection might well curtail the resources it devotes to exhibitions and education programs, thereby depriving the public of exposure to new work, new information and new ideas.
Where are we going?
Logistics and practical questions aside, how does an institution with a growing collection acquired over time stay on the cutting edge, remain contemporary? Art collected by museums in the early years of the modernist tsunami has decidedly altered the missions of these institutions. The imperative to share these objects, some now of iconic status, with the public on a regular and informative basis has shifted the emphasis of their exhibition programs to a position that encompasses both the new and the historic. For example, while few would argue that MoMA doesnt remain a valuable or relevant resource, its mission has changed over time to reflect its collection strengths and their importance. Such changes in mission and focus at other collecting museums founded to concentrate on the modern and/or contemporary will certainly intensify as these institutions grow older.
In the new century, with Modernism a hundred years old, it may be time to rethink the approach of both the collecting and non-collecting institutions established to champion it. In the not-for-profit world of arts institutions, resources are always scarce and difficult choices about the management and direction of these resources are a continuous necessity. Given the complexity and variety of contemporary art, one might ask if it makes sense for institutions to duplicate each others efforts by vigorously collecting the same kinds of work by the same artists. Instead, it may be time to consider the meaning and historical approach of museums to the ownership of works of art. A few collecting museums, for example, have made tentative steps towards experimenting with shared collectionsespecially in the area of electronic media. Others, with the help of prescient foundations, have established vast, formal collection sharing and long-term loan programs. Perhaps contemporary institutions that have chosen to direct resources towards exhibitions might further redefine both the definition of collections and the meaning of ownership of art objects by exploring new ways of collecting.
One thing, however, seems clear. Without careful consideration of the consequences of redirecting resources to a collection that ranges from traditional, easel-sized paintings to internet art to room-sized installations, and without lucid thinking about how to remain in the vanguard as a collection ages, it would be premature and inappropriate for many of us to reconsider our status as non-collecting museums.
1. The New Museum no doubt anticipated some difficulty with its initial plan, especially from professional organizations such as the American Association of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors. Both organizations have stringent policies against selling work from museum collections without careful deliberation and insist that proceeds from such sales be reinvested in art for the collection that is from the same time period as that sold. The policy seeks to prevent the boards or directors of museums from viewing collections as a ready source of cash that can be raided in times of economic need or changing fashion. It recognizes that collections are material held in trust for the public and that what may be perceived as expendable today, may in fact be especially pertinent or valuable tomorrow.
2. Take Finders/Keepers, for example. In this exhibition and publication, organized to celebrate the Contemporary Arts Museum Houstons reopening after a 1997 renovation, the Museum reminded its community that, in a sense, it does have a collection after allalbeit not one that it owns, stores, inventories or conserves. This collection is composed of objects that stayed in the surrounding region after being introduced in exhibitions at the Museum. All were borrowed from local public and private collections and all had been originally showcased in exhibitions at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Finders/Keepers included 70+ works of art ranging from African masks to major works by Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella to seminal photographs by Cindy Sherman and John Baldessari to important works by The Art Guys, John Biggers, Benito Huerta, Vernon Fischer and James Drake.
3. At the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, generally speaking, over a period of two or three years, our schedule and the artists we show break down into about a third of international origin, a third that are U.S. based and a third from this region.