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The Gallery as Museum

When I was growing up in Manhattan and at least several times a week visiting the Met and MoMA, plus other days the other amazing museums, it seemed to me that the major difference between a museum and a gallery was the size of the space. I also thought that galleries showed living artists, while those in museums were often deceased.

Of course, I had absolutely no idea about the buying and selling of art. I was all eyes and had little discernment between good art, commercial art and well, dreck. I assumed if art was in any gallery or museum it had to be good, even if I thought otherwise. Until tenth grade, when I entered the High School of Music and Art, there were few people or places where I could ask any of my questions or receive any art guidance.

One of the galleries where they always welcomed me in from the cold, answered my questions and treated me with respect was Wildenstein. When I first wandered in, I had already discovered that unlike the kind people I found in museums, many galleries did not welcome me. I was then twelve years old, tall, gawky, shyly and self consciously turning into a woman, carrying a huge and heavy load of books, plus I was alone. For galleries intent on selling to well-heeled collectors, I was a sure waste of time.

Wildenstein was different. There I could ask questions, and unlike the guards at the museums, these people actually had some answers. Of course, at first I was too insecure to ask any questions, but by the middle of winter, I managed to venture a few. I recall one, which they handled well, without making me feel silly or stupid. I was looking at a Cezanne and I wanted to know if this was the same artist Cezanne I found in the museums. When I was told it was, I asked, “Can I meet him?”

As time went on and my interest never ceased, I began to learn about design, some art history and even began to understand that all Impressionist style art was not necessarily good art. Especially thanks to the Wildenstein, I began to learn how to see and appreciate good work.

My visits to Wildenstein as a girl was my first brush with a gallery functioning in the role of a museum, as one of a museum's roles is to educate. Of course Wildenstein also introduced and promoted the works of some of the most important artists in modern art, what has become another role for many art museums.

This past spring, I returned to Wildenstein for a splendid retrospective on Monet, one which rivaled any shown in a museum, except for the constraints imposed by the gallery's size, which is the size of many smaller museums. For this special show, the gallery was functioning even more like a museum: charging admission, as a fundraiser for a non-profit charity, selling a large book-catalogue, a good sized display of Monet's letters and his biography – there was even a roped off area so lines could form, along with guards standing outside the door. For me, it was a homecoming of sorts.

Wildenstein is not the only gallery today that is blurring the line between themselves and museums. Many galleries that represent living artists have begun to hold retrospectives of museum quality works, usually by they do not represent and/or who are deceased.

The same day I visited the Wildenstein show on Monet, I saw “Georges Rouault: Clowns, Judges and Whores” at the Mitchell Innes and Nash Gallery at 1810 Madison Avenue. It was another exhibit, again worthy of a museum, except again for the confines of the gallery space. I am a fan of Rouault's, I contend that his work deserves more attention, so I am fairly familiar with his work. I found this show to be especially good and the works illustrated his poignant view of his society.

These gallery shows are also like museum shows in that the gallery often borrows or work sin cooperation with other galleries and collectors. Some of the works shown may not be for sale.

A good example of this cooperative and enterprising type of show was at Richard L. Feigen & Co., which had “Sublime Convergence: Gothic to the Abstract”. This exhibition was in collaboration with Moretti Fine Art of Italy and also collectors and other galleries, notably Pace Wildenstein for the Modern works mentioned below. Here Italian Renaissance masters were paired with Modern Art creating interesting “conversations” on the walls and proving that great art does not need to be confined to its period for display. A Mark Rothko was paired with Bernardo Daddi's Saint Domenic, each work dark and meditating on the eternal. Nearby the horizontal tones of Agnes Martin's Untitled #8 reflected the colors and print in an open book found in Saint Peter, Seated on a Bench holding a Book and Key by Lorenzo Monaco. Hopefully, we will see more of this kind of show and pairings.

Since I mentioned Pace Wildenstein (yes, Wildenstein) About the same time as the above exhibits, they had, "Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism ”at their location of 57 th street. Yet another museum quality show, this one obviously dealing with film.

Of course, there are many galleries that specialize in selling museum quality works. Some galleries both represent contemporary artists and show works that are museum quality, even simultaneously. While Mitchell Innes and Nash was had the Rouault show it partly overlapped a show of contemporary artist David Godbold in their Chelsea location (see “ Some Chelsea Shows in May ").

Another gallery, one is the James Cohan Gallery, which held a well received and reviewed museum quality show in the fall of '06, “Cosmologies.” This show ranged from ancient works of art and manuscripts and maps to cutting edge works, including contemporary artists not represented by the gallery, all focused upon a theme, which ended up illustrating humankind's historical changes in understanding pespecially in relation both science and religion. (see Do We Create Our Reality or Do We Only Respond or React? )

One gallery that seems to do it all is Spanierman, which has a contempory gallery, a gallery that almost always has a museum quality show, usually of nineteenth or early twentieth century artists and in East Hampton, NY, mixes it all up. I recently attended a show there that was ostensibly about Thomas Moran, showing many lovely smaller works and drawings, but meaner into another of part of their sprawling Hamptons gallery and find, Picassos, Matisse, Giacometti or Mel Ramos and Wayne Thiebaud. Again, much like a museum, Spanierman has an educational aspect, holding shows and functions and sending out materials to educate the young or new collector. Spanierman also sends out what I consider museum quality announcements and literature about its shows and events and collections. Of course, just as museums and most of the shows mentioned in this article, there are usually catalogues or books about their retrospective, museum quality shows.

So where is the line, the demarcation point that separates galleries, especially those who have successfully crossed the line into museum quality and educational shows and events, from museums? With museums such as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery selling works to purchase -- dare I say invest ---in other works can we only separate the two based upon the profit motive? On the side of museums, in the USA museums must have patronage and that includes the entry fees of the public in order to exist, so it is important to own works and have shows that have popular appeal.

Perhaps there should be some kind of special tax break, the kind non-profits receive for those galleries that launch the kinds of shows, relevant shows that benefit and educate the public? Will we find ourselves one day supporting and joining galleries, they way we join museums? Or, will some of these shows in galleries, become like out of town try-outs for theater and move on to travel to museums here and abroad? If so, will those museums help fund them?

Sure, I understand the PR aspect of holding shows that attract more people who will hopefully become collectors. I also get that often some of the works are for sale. But, as an artist who as a young, gawky, inquisitive pre and then teenager, who received a great basis and education from galleries, and most especially the Wildenstein, just as I did in the beloved hallows walls of the Metropolitan and MoMA, for me the line between great galleries and museums is sometimes very blurred.

August 31, 2008


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