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New Museum, Old Oligarchy

December 26, 2009. In the wake of the New Museum's announcement of a controversial exhibition drawn solely from the extensive collection of billionaire Dakis Joannou, one of their trustees and founder of the Deste Foundation in Athens, and slated to be curated by artist Jeff Koons, who is heavily represented in that very collection and who is a close personal friend of Joannou, there has been a glut of commentary both pro and con. Mostly con.

Many resent the obvious conflicts of interest and the elitist monopolization of the finite resources of the art world by just a few players, who strive to dominate, manipulate and benefit their own interests to the exclusion of all others. Many find this cronyism quite reprehensible, and feel it represents "business as usual" at the New Museum, entrenched abuses of power and privilege that the current "Joannou-gate" has merely made more glaring.

Jerry Saltz published no less than three online pieces (in six days) on, viewable here, here and here. Over the course of these articles, he managed to temporize his original conclusion, that "the art world now thinks that ... the institution has been badly compromised..." to "Let’s just see the show. Then we’ll decide." and finally to "The more I thought about the issue, the less black-and-white it seemed. In addition, the outrage and moralizing around it started to seem over the top."

Here are some selected comments on his articles, published on the site last month, which possibly influenced his equivocation.

The art world is a Mafia. It enables the travel expenses, hotels, access to dinners and parties, all the perks of its well connected VIP members (museum directors, curators, star artists, trustees and collectors, even certain critics/entertainment reporters) who exploit their positions to spend institutional money on their self aggrandizement.

Nothing new about that. Power begets privilege begets power begets privilege. Lisa Phillips travels the world on the New Museum dime. And the generous, expansive Dakis Joannou throws wonderful parties on his yacht and in a converted slaughterhouse on Hydra, where the art world's top 300 (including many of the New Museum perpetrators) all cheer themselves silly while gorging on a dead shark as the culmination of a processional "piece" collaborated on by Matthew Barney and Elizabeth Peyton. Perhaps it was at just such a moment, glutted on wine and food and sun and their feeling of supreme and uncontested entitlement, that the brilliant idea for the show was hatched.

The New Museum is just being particularly brazen. But the "insiderness" is just standard operating procedure. Perhaps Steely Dan put it best:

Show biz kids making movies
Of themselves you know they
Don't give a fuck about anybody else.

There was never any difference between the New Museum and "business as usual" in the art world. Those naive enough to think so are now disappointed. As an institution, the New Museum has always suffered from the same elevated self regard and privileged hauteur as any other self styled elitist arts institution. The fact that it was nominally positioned to be involved in "cutting edge", experimental or younger work is incidental to its primary need to be a "gatekeeper", with all the exclusiveness and exclusion thus implied.

The museum is a locus of power. Its officers, its director and curators, are inured to the lifestyle and the personal aggrandizement granted to the powerful. They developed their careers over time, in other places, and do not have the slightest intention of giving up any ground in their carefully constructed career arcs, their will to power. When Lisa Phillips says she is committed to "challenge and experimentation", you can bet the one aspect of her program that she will not be experimenting with is anything that challenges her hegemony.

I have heard Phillips called a "samurai", as a compliment, to signal her "fierce" commitment to the institution over which she presides. But the samurai class has a warrior code, called Bushido, which stresses frugality, loyalty, honor, obedience, duty, and self-sacrifice. Aside from the other qualities, which we could debate, I would never accuse Phillips of acting with frugality or self sacrifice. She is akin to a corporate executive, committed to expanding her 4 P's at all costs: power, prestige, privilege and perquisites. Her choices thus far, from the "Younger Than Jesus" triennial opener to the current Fischer to the proposed Joannou show, do not advance the visionary spirit of experimentation and inclusiveness as much as they build sensationalism and branding, and erect walls of cronyism and exclusion. Phillips does not speak truth to power; she merely sleeps with it.

Trustees and donors pay for it all, and at the New Museum they were hustled mercilessly by the director, the board and the corporate fundraisers to put their names on every square inch and into every titled position. The Josephine von Fustweiler Elevator. The Edith and Hugo Schopenhauer Sub-Director of Janitorial Services. Etc. etc. I have never seen an arts institution so heavily branded with the names of its benefactors. It's like going to a NASCAR rally.

Problem is, the branding did not stop there. The branding carries on in every aspect of the enterprise, most deleteriously in the "content", the "programming". Meaning the art suffers as a result, being chosen not for its inherent aesthetic value, but for who stands behind it as an investor or collector or dealer, who stands to profit by its exhibition, whose lifestyle can be aggrandized by its selection. As well as for the sensationalism that can be derived from dumbing down the content for the sake of notoreity.

Much of the New Museum's programming fits this unfortunate mold. The establishment of an ageist zeitgeist in the"Younger Than Jesus" triennial. The apotheosis of Urs Fischer (three floors!!), a clever 36 year old provocateur to be sure, but chosen more for his Gavin Brown/Dakis Joannou pedigree than for the quality of the work or the need of the NY arts audience to confront so much bratty phenomenology.

Who is responsible? A prime malefactor is Lisa Phillips. She sets the tone. The buck stops with her, but also begins with her as per the privileges she enjoys. She is the entitled traveler, the party goer, the girl with the most cake, and the selections she has ratified in her execution of power need to be scrutinized. The debate on the proposed Joannou exhibition places this issue in high relief, but it has been simmering on the back burner for a while, apparent to many. It is an instance of unchecked arrogance, an abuse of delegated power.

Very confusing. Five days ago Saltz published a piece on this site much more critical of the New Museum (but similarly phrased - some sentences and paragraphs above appear above lifted wholesale from the original piece). It was entitled "Money, Insularity and a Huge Controversy for the New Museum". It garnered 30 comments, some quite critical of the New Museum and of its director, Lisa Phillips.

Now the current article arrives - "Why the Moralizing ... Is A Bit Much" it asserts - much more conciliatory, and seeming to replace the critical thrust of the preceding piece with a new tone. It seems designed to eclipse the original article, which was much more critical, especially in the comments it generated.

Just wondering. Did the New Museum (an obvious advertiser on express displeasure and in some way influence the publishing of a second article, by the same writer and on the same subject, that was designed to be more conciliatory?

I wonder what changed Saltz's mind in the interim.

Sorry to be so tardy in reading your comment. And you're very very right. "Art parties are not that good!" All that passive aggression, that nervous preening for success, that looking over the shoulder, that jealousy and envy. Not much fun at all. But please don't tell Jerry. He worked hard to get invited to them. He complained when the Scene and Herd gossip column on first began, and claimed it was about the same 50 people all the time. Now that he is one of the 50, or more accurately one of the 250 names that recur in Artforum bold print, his original gripe has vanished.

The art world social scene is small, insular and a bit nasty. Just like the New Museum.

Lisa Phillips cannot not be Marcia Tucker and should not make the attempt. In fact she has not. But with all her fierce advocacy and concentration on marketing, her striving for superficial hipness, her attempt to establish audacity as a "brand", her will to hegemony, her returning again and again to the same precincts and power bases for legitimacy and ascendancy, there is a mandate of trust and moral force from the original New Museum that somehow seems to be lost, violated. And this is just not a function of the more highly politicized moment that spawned the institution in the 70s and 80s. It is evidence of Phillips' all consuming ambition, an entrenched, oligarchical arrogance that essentially states: "My art mafia, the clutch of artists, dealers, collectors etc. whom I favor again and again, the bold names that - like mine - you will find in all the art columns - we are all that matters." Eventually, this posture can grow tiresome for the huge population of gawkers.

Beck cajoled us to "Give the finger to the rock and roll singer as he's dancing upon your paycheck". Perhaps the art world needs to address, once more, how to apportion its paycheck.

The point is not whether the show will look good, or great, or mediocre, or same old. The point is precisely the unquestioned entitlement and the dictates of power. The "hornet's nest" you speak of is hardly significant to the Art Mandarins. They are only responsible to the trustees - to a small elite of special interests - and will continue their entitled rule, their privilege and perks, their logrolling, their sharing of favors. It's an art gang. They travel the world, talk only to each other, and facilitate each other's mutual apotheosis.

The current Joannou controversy makes the unquestioned entitlements and dictates of power particularly obvious, even if just for a moment, and poses potentially dangerous questions: Should the attention and the funding of the art world should be hijacked by the posturing and power plays of this Art Mafia? Should it just be money talking loud? We expect money to rule in the auction house. But for it to bum rush institutions that are supposed to serve the public, and to corrupt the essentially impartial domains of curating and the writing of art history: this is gangsterism revealed.

Jerry's initial response was to raise the flag and lead the troops - us - into battle against "insiderness". But our response was too vociferous, and perhaps he had a phone call or a bracing sit down with one of the Mandarins. They asked him: "Do you really want to be the leader of the vast unwashed? They are not welcome at our table. But we, the Mandarins, have opened out doors to you, Jerry. Please consider your position!"

Hence this second conciliatory article to "replace" the first.

Thanks for your attempt at damage control. Of course, any magazine must insist on the hermetically sealed wall separating editorial from advertising. But most people in the art world know that Artforum, for example, runs on its tombstone ads, and will not dis a exhibition by one of its advertisers. Hell, they generally will not even publish a review unless the exhibition appears in an advertising gallery. So it's great to see an Urs Fischer tongue stick out at us from a New Museum banner ad as we are reading about "insiderness" in the same institution. "I found that essence rare, it's what I looked for." - Gang of Four.

Ink is ink, no matter how you parse it. Controversy is what the New Museum craves, which makes it a likely match for New York Magazine. I hope the two of you will be very happy together.