Jori Finkel: Make sure the artists are on board

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Finances tell part of the story; staff size tells another. But you could also chart the recent vicissitudes of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), Los Angeles, through the four artists who famously served as board members: John Baldessari, Catherine Opie, Barbara Kruger and Ed Ruscha. They served as trustees for years, they all resigned in 2012 within the space of a week in protest over the museum’s actions, and this year, all except for Ruscha (who joined the board of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) signed on again to serve as trustees under the new director Philippe Vergne.

Artists who are also trustees: Ed Ruscha, Fred Wilson, and John Baldessari with Catherine Opie

These artist-trustees went from filling what could have been seen as ­symbolic posts, demonstrating the ­museum’s commitment to living artists, to playing a critical role in MoCA’s ­recent public relations crisis and its recovery-in-progress.

MoCA, which has had artists on its board almost since its founding (starting with Sam Francis and Robert Irwin), is an extreme case scenario. But other contemporary art museums are also making space for at least one artist on their boards.

MoMA/PS1, New York, has Mickalene Thomas and Cindy Sherman. The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, has Fred Wilson. This April the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago lined up David Hartt—the first time in years it has invited an artist to join the board. The museum’s director, Madeleine Grynsztejn, says the decision stemmed from its mission to be “artist-activated, audience-engaged”.

“They keep the core mission of the institution dead centre in front of us,” says Ann Philbin, the director of the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, of Barbara Kruger and Lari Pittman, the two artists who serve on her Board of Overseers (not to be confused with an artist advisory council she also created).

“I think it’s really important for the board and staff to be reminded that we are all about artists, so that we do not become too institutional or bureau­cratic,” says SFMoMA’s director, Neal Benezra. He recruited Ruscha to replace the industrial designer Yves Béhar and created a second artist-trustee spot, going this year to the sculptor Vincent Fecteau.

A museum’s moral compass

These museums enjoy benefits from bringing artists on their boards, starting with a certain publicity value. More ­substantially, the artist can play a key role as a liaison, representing the interests of local artists to the board and the interests of the board to the community.

In SFMoMA’s case, Béhar’s connection not only to the design world but to Silicon Valley proved instrumental, recently paving the way for a partnership with the town of Los Altos on a public exhibition.

And the fact that some of the artist-trustees mentioned above are black suggests that the museums might be trying to broaden their predominantly white boards.

The MoCA trustees also proved that artists could serve an important watchdog function, speaking out publicly about the museum’s behind-the-scenes problems at a time when few others—apart from “lifetime trustees”—would.

Baldessari was the first to resign in July 2012, shortly after the museum’s chief curator, Paul Schimmel, and the head of education, Aandrea Stang, were ousted. Baldessari mentioned a planned show on the cultural history of disco by the then-director Jeffrey Deitch as a tipping point, but later emphasised more endemic reasons.

Next came Opie and Kruger, who resigned with a joint letter that did not identify problems with Deitch, as many later reported, but with the museum board’s disregard for transparency. Ruscha, who was travelling at the time, did not give a reason for leaving.

A year later, the artists were recruited to join the museum’s search committee for a new director. This March, all but Ruscha rejoined MoCA’s board under Vergne’s leadership, and Mark Grotjahn was soon named as the fourth trustee.

Their actions show just how powerfully artists can act as a museum’s moral compass. What museum leaders might not count on is that this conscience-wrangling could, as in the case of MoCA, take place in a very public forum—and that artists are arguably more sympathetic figures than large institutions.

Avoiding a conflict

Another risk museums must consider is the potential for conflicts of interest. Should a museum be allowed to show or buy art made by one of its trustees?

The issue came to a head in the UK in 2005 when the Tate, which by law must have artists on its board, was blasted for buying a 13-canvas installation, The Upper Room, by its then-trustee Chris Ofili. This was hardly the only work the museum bought by one of its trustees, but it was the most expensive, costing £600,000 plus VAT (although this was under market value).

The public outcry led to an investigation by the Charity Commission, the UK’s regulatory agency for charities. It found that the Tate broke the law by buying art from Ofili and other serving trustees without authority from the commission. The Tate changed its policy and it must now get prior approval for such purchases.

These days, some US museums also have ethical codes or bylaws to address potential conflicts of interest. With slight variations, MoMA/PS1, SFMoMA, and MCA Chicago all have policies that prevent them giving artist-trustees exhibitions or buying their art during their tenure. The three museums have set short, non-renewable term limits for artist-trustees. At the New York ­museum, it is two years; at the other two, it is three.

Meanwhile, the Whitney specifies that “if the museum is contemplating the purchase, sale or exhibition of that artist’s work”, an artist on the board may answer questions, “but must leave a meeting prior to any detailed discussion, final decision-making or vote”. Any sale or exhibition must be approved by a majority of members.

The Hammer says it also has a “leave-the-room” policy but would otherwise consider these issues on a case-by-case basis. Philbin says: “If there are acquisitions, they are very public—these are not backroom deals. You just need to proceed with awareness.”

Vergne expresses a similar view, noting that MoCA’s artist-trustees are already represented in its collection. “For me, the key is transparency if we decide to acquire work by one of these artists.”

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