Between a crippling recession and tumultuous art market, It's been a trying time for American museums. After a decade of flamboyant expansions and record-breaking blockbuster exhibitions, many of these institutions have turned inward in recent years, delving into undiscovered nooks of permanent collections.
And in increasing frequency, museums are exhibiting the holdings of local collectors — art events that have been termed, pejoratively, as "vanity exhibitions."
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston falls under particular criticism in an article in the Los Angeles Times in which art critic Christopher Knight launches a diatribe against the proliferation of the vanity exhibition, suggesting that exhibiting private collections results in an intellectually diminished visitor experience.
"Packing up paintings and sculptures from a private collector's living room and hauling them over to the museum's public galleries for a temporary display is about as low-grade a curatorial enterprise as can be imagined," Knight writes. "The vision required is limited, if not nonexistent."
Knight argues that vanity shows reinforce the negative perception that art museums are "playthings for the rich and well-connected," and are evidence of museums "trolling" for gifts. The piece arraigns the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for showcasing the collections of Smooke, Broad and Resnick, and particularly the Museum of Fine Arts Boston for the Things I Love exhibition, which put on display works owned by honorary trustee William I. Koch (including a few flashy yachts on the museum lawn).
The Art Institute of Chicago, New Museum of Contemporary Art and Brooklyn Museum are also highlighted for subscribing to vanity exhibitions, making for a thorough article — if it weren't for the solitary mentioning of the MFAH: "Perhaps the nation's most active vanity venue is the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where no fewer than seven have been displayed since 2007."
No example is provided. There is no research into the collectors' affiliations. The assertion is a glaring hole in an otherwise pointed opinion piece.
But in terms of Knight's actual argument — that vanity exhibitions result in vapid content — is disproved at the MFAH.
"He's welcome to that opinion, but it's not necessarily so," MFAH director Peter Marzio tells CultureMap.
"I get the feeling when I read articles like this, that the critics don't appreciate a very simple truth: really important museums are an outgrowth of the local communities," Marizo says. "If you miss that, then you miss the whole dynamic quality of modern American cultural life."
Private collector exhibitions at the MFAH have brought thorough viewpoints to Houston audiences, such as RED HOT — Asian Art Today from the Chaney Family Collection, END GAME — British Contemporary Art from the Chaney Family Collection and Pioneers of Contemporary Glass: Highlights from the Barbara and Dennis DuBois Collection.
"The number of works from these shows that were then delivered into the museum's collection has enriched and showed Houstonians things they had never seen before in the city," Marzio, says. "How could that be bad?"
The notion that showing private collections is a manifestation of corruption between donors and their patrons also is open to interpretation.
"If a collector insists that we have to display a certain work, then we just don't do that show," Marzio insists. "And that's happened a number of times, frankly. In my experience, there are more compromises made regarding shows made to a curatorial show. The writer's assuming that just because these people are powerful, the museum's automatically giving up intellectual standards."
"I think it all comes down to the quality of the collection. Great art is great art," says local gallery owner Barbara Davis, who works closely with some of the MFAH's top donors. "In the case of the Chaney collection, he had an in-depth collection of contemporary artists from Asia, so it was an opportunity for Houston to be educated and see a total breadth of work. Great museums work towards the education and awareness of work that someone may have never seen before or experienced.
"With the Chaney collection's China show, the museum shed light on how there's so many great works coming out of China today."
Marzio admits that very often, a private collector can move faster and make more intelligent decisions.
"As a result," Marizo notes, "individuals have culled brilliant collections. Before they built their own museums, if Mr. Frick or Mrs. de Menil had offered us to show their work, would we say, 'No, because Mr. Knight says it wouldn't be a good idea?'
"There's also a tendency among critics to think that museums were purer in the past than they are today," Marzio continues. "In reality, museums are now less commercial, with a higher dedication to research and aesthetic standards."
The director suggests that curator-driven shows, rather than private collection exhibitions, make more compromises because the process deals with multiple collectors and private commercial galleries.
The MFAH mounts around 50 exhibitions a year, meaning that a mere 3.5 percent of exhibitions since 2007 have been of private collections. Ironically, the proliferation of the ego-seum (particularly in LA) presents greater problems because the potential for a permanent lack of diversity is always present.
Nevertheless, whether it be through a self-titled bequest, temporary exhibition or entire museum, the critical role collectors play in a city's art community should not be disgraced but celebrated.