“The museum is doing a fascinating project,” argued the dealer, who, as it happens, also serves as the curator of Joannou’s collection. “It is having one of the most interesting, radical artists of our time do an artistic curation of the best contemporary art collection of our time.” He was responding to panel member and artist Clifford Owens, who accused the New Museum staff of “institutional irresponsibility” in organizing the show, echoing complaints made by many commentators in recent weeks.
Among those most critical of the New Museum has been Village Voice art critic Martha Schwendener, who recently wrote that the New Museum’s decision to show Joannou’s collection was part of its newfound habit of “anointing white, male, European artists in an attempt to build a reciprocally beneficial art history.” Tonight, in another example of the double lives that exist in the art industry, Schwendener was serving as the panel’s moderator, in her role as a member of the FIT faculty.
For Deitch, the New Museum controversy threatens people's ability to have options and make choices within the art world. “We all make critical judgments,” he said. “I show art. Martha writesabout art. A great collector, like Dakis, is notcollecting to accumulate assets. He wants to be involved in this! If you don’t like what’s at my gallery, you go tothe gallery down the block… You can also patronize White Columns, if you feel that program’s more interesting to you.” Quoting Joseph Beuys, he told the audience, “The revolution is us.”
Art adviser Thea Westreich, who was also sitting on the panel, echoed Deitch’s position but framed the discussion in historical terms. “No museum since the beginning of time has been able to mount exhibitions, build collections, or exist without the assistance of collectors,” she pointed out. “We have the Guggenheim Museum, we have the Whitney! This is a reality of the history of art… Whether it’s a vomitous idea or not, it’s fact.”
During the boom years, those stark truths were easy to ignore. But with many in the art world now having tough times — to vastly different degrees — some are questioning the status quo, and Owens highlighted the income disparities and class issues that exist for artists within that reality. “We do not have jobs, and we do not have health insurance,” he noted. “We have a hard time feeding our children. Some of us are really fucking struggling.” Deitch suggested that Joannou may have become an easy target for such issues “because he has a certain way of life, because he’s a billionaire or something.”
And after all, this was an event about art itself — performance art. Museum of Modern Art assistant curator Cara Starke, the final panelist, found herself taking on the role of neutral observer in the argument, comforting the audience that, as commercial and artistic interests battle it out, MoMA will focus on trying to “re-present art works to the best of our ability in the future,” noting that she and her colleagues continually ask, especially when confronting performance work, which often resist easy packaging and sale, “How does the museum preserve the artist’s integrity?”
No matter how difficult or intangible the work, of course, most agreed that artists or their dealers will eventually find a way to sell it, leaving the museum to work out some of the details later. Deitch recounted that, as a gallery assistant at John Weber Gallery in the mid-1970s, he once typed the words “There was a discussion” on a piece of paper as a record that collector Count Giuseppe Panza had talked to artist Ian Wilson, who abandoned sculpture to make art only by talking. He then made out an invoice for $1,000.
“I am an artist who finds the market highly problematic,” Owens, looking a bit exasperated, told the audience. “Art is not for everybody, and it doesn’t need to be.” On this, at least, everyone could agree. “I second that,” Westreich quickly interjected. “I’ll even third that.”