Commerce vs. Curation: Lessons From Today’s Museum World

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opened to the public on Nov. 11, will be the new home of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi.”

LONDON — “The right function of every museum,” wrote John Ruskin, the influential 19th-century art and social critic, “is the manifestation of what is lovely in the life of nature, and heroic in the life of men.”

Museums of the 21st century have moved on a bit. Nowadays, they try to exhibit art that reflects a much more diverse spectrum of society than was on show in the Victorian era. They are also “destination” enterprises, with permanent collections and special exhibitions, cafes and shops trying to attract as many visitors as possible in an age of global tourism.

The Art Newspaper published its 2017 museum attendance survey last month. The Louvre, in Paris, maintained its long-held ranking as the world’s most popular museum, attracting 8.1 million visitors last year, or nearly 40,000 more than the second most visited, the National Museum of China in Beijing. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was third, with 6.7 million.

In terms of total visitors, the dominant exhibition surveyed was “Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection,” at the privately owned Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. The show attracted more than 1.2 million visitors in less than five months, according to The Art Newspaper.

It is a sign of our times that a museum founded by the billionaire private collector Bernard Arnault should mount such an ambitious exhibition. With the ultrawealthy paying ever higher prices for trophy works of art, and many cultural institutions facing cuts in state funding, private collectors are becoming an increasingly influential force in the museum world.

“We see more private collectors engaged with museum boards and loaning works to museums,” said John Mathews, head of private wealth management at UBS America. “Competition for the best works has increased among institutions with the globalization of the art world and the rise of income-generating blockbuster exhibitions.”

Mr. Mathews added: “The collecting habits of our clients are directly tied to their passion habits. Billionaires want to give back to communities.”

Billionaires on museum boards can create tensions, as well as present solutions, particularly as exhibition programs become more diverse.

Last month, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), announced that it had “decided to part ways” withits chief curator, Helen Molesworth, “due to creative differences.”

Ms. Molesworth had organized critically acclaimed exhibitions devoted to the African-American painter Kerry James Marshall and the Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino. Artnews reported that Ms. Molesworth had criticized the overwhelming whiteness of the MOCA board during a January talk at the University of California, Los Angeles.

She made a similar point two months earlier at a talk in San Francisco. “Museum boards are increasingly comprised of exceedingly affluent people who don’t come from a philanthropic or cultural background,” Ms. Molesworth said. “They often come from a financial background or a being-rich background,” Artnews quoted her as saying.

The MOCA board has the Los Angeles collector Maurice Marciano as a co-chair, and it includes other wealthy collectors such as Steven A. Cohen, Laurence Graff and Victor Pinchuk.

The Los Angeles painter Mark Grotjahn is also on the board. MOCA had planned to hold a fund-raising gala in his honor in May, but with controversy in the air, Mr. Grotjahn pulled out of the event in February.

Ms. Molesworth did not reply to a request from The New York Times for comment.

“Some curators are working hard to change the canon to include different genders and minorities,” said Lisa Schiff, a New York art adviser with an office in Los Angeles, who has clients who sit on museum boards. “But oftentimes, not always, that collides with the collections of the board members,” she added, noting that some concentrated on works by white male artists.

“We have art historical issues entangled with the market,” she added. “It’s a very complicated time.”

On the other hand, cultivating wealthy board members, trustees and patrons is crucial for museums seeking to make a major acquisition through a gift or loan. Major acquisitions bring in more visitors, which in turn drives income.

In the first 12 days that the Seattle Museum of Art displayed the 1982 Jean-Michel Basquiat painting “Untitled,” the museum attracted more than 13,000 visitors, or 56 percent more than had been projected before the loan was secured. The suggested admission price of $19.95 for adults lets patrons see this monumental image of a skull that drew headlines around the world in May when it sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s.

Seattle is the latest stop in a world tour that the painting’s new owner, the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, planned for the painting. It had previously been on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and will travel to an as yet unspecified venue in Europe in August.

Credit...John Sciulli/Getty Images for MOCA

“Distance should neither restrain nor limit us,” Mr. Maezawa said in a Seattle Museum of Artnews release, underlining how the painting, certainly in his mind, had become a “destination” artwork.

The same can be said with even more certainty of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi,” which shattered auction highs when it sold for $450.3 million in November. The details of how it came to be acquired by the Louvre Abu Dhabi have yet to be clarified, but whenever it goes on show — no dates have been announced — it should bolster visitor numbers at the Jean Nouvel-designed museum, which opened to the public on Nov. 11. The Louvre brand will then have the distinction of displaying the world’s most valuable painting (the “Mona Lisa”) in France, and the most expensive in the United Arab Emirates.

As leading museums compete for crowd-drawing exhibits, and try to balance commercial interests and cultural diversity, visitors are bearing a rising proportion of the cost.

Though admission to the permanent collections of Britain’s public museums is free, adults are paying 22 pounds, or about $31, to view the must-see Tate Modern exhibition “Picasso 1932 — Love, Fame, Tragedy.” British museums had long been careful to keep exhibition ticket prices below £20.

Since March 1, people who do not live in New York State have to pay a mandatory admission fee of $25 to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum, already facing a budget deficit, is planning a new wing, at a cost of at least $450 million, to house acquisitions and gifts of modern and contemporary art.

“I foresee that the expansionist ethos of museums, which apes the world of business, is unsustainable and potentially corrupting, or at the very least distracting from the museums’ main mission,” Anna Somers Cocks, the founding editor and chairman of The Art Newspaper, wrote in its 300th anniversary issue.

But what, exactly, is the main mission of a museum?

If it is to show the greatest art to the largest number of people in a scholarly and affordable manner, then that mission might have been accomplished last year in Japan. In just three months, the exhibition “Unkei: The Great Master of Buddhist Sculpture” at the Tokyo National Museum attracted an average of 11,268 visitors a day, 2,342 more than the average for the Shchukin Collection show in Paris. Adult admission to the Tokyo show cost 1600 yen, or about $15.

So, measured by daily footfall, an exhibition of religious sculptures more than 800 years old was the most popular show in the world in 2017. Even Ruskin might have approved.

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