The Visionary vs. the Consumer
By Yasmeen Siddiqui, in response to the Tilt West Roundtable: Curators, Collectors, and the Shaping of Art History
Upon leaving Tilt West’s November, 2017 roundtable on Curators, Collectors, and the Shaping of Art History, which opened with Aspen Art Museum Curator Courtenay Finn’s astute comments, I was struck by the need to delineate the role that visionary collectors and curators play in the writing of art history. The visionary collector is not simply a consumer but an organized and strategic participant in the field at large.
Only days after the Tilt West conversation, we read the news of the painting Salvator Mundi, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, coming to auction and being sold for a staggering amount — the largest price tag on an artwork to date — a whopping four hundred and fifty million dollars for what might very well be the work of a different artist altogether. The art world and general public started and continue to spin and speculate. This is a politically charged discussion. Under an emerging paradigm in the global museum system, Saudi Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Farhan al-Saud, an associate of the progressive Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, made the historic acquisition of Salvator Mundi, on behalf of a young, still formulating, encyclopedic museum, the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The goal of this growing collection, as with others, is to assume a role as a catalyst in the shaping of art history. The debate over the provenance of Salvator Mundi rattles this effort.
Historically, great collections in cities like New York, London, and Paris have had the advantage of colonialism and its operating structures working on their behalf. Let’s take an example from the French. Upon the invasion of Egypt in 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte initiated the Description de l’Égypte, a series of publications cataloguing all aspects of ancient and modern Egyptian culture and natural history. These were completed by 1829. At the same time, another researcher and art collector — archaeologist, egyptologist, architect, and writer Emile Prisse d’Avennes — spent nineteen years documenting the art and architecture of ancient and Islamic Egypt. These endeavors resulted in encyclopedic registries of material culture from places that the French occupied and extracted from in order to build their own national collection. The market for art objects and artworks in our contemporary moment, a post-colonial time, operates differently. These differences shape the ways in which new museums, new centers of study and learning, and new hubs of knowledge and writing develop collections and programming.
During the Tilt West roundtable, one participant made reference to the seminal 1874 Impressionist exhibition in which thirty artists displayed 165 works at the photographer Nadar’s former studio at 35 Boulevard des Capucines. This example provides an historic context for the potential bond between dealer, collector, and curator — a bond that can support artists individually, and sometimes, as we know from the story of this group, collectively. Paul Durand-Ruel was one of two French art dealers who developed markets in Europe and the United States for the artists who came to be called the Impressionists and also the Barbizon School. This stunning example of a visionary collector continues to resonate in the ambitions of today’s collectors. Durand-Ruel’s commitment to new ways of interpolating pressing questions about experiments in painting is intriguing. Why was he willing to lose his shirt over these artists? Decades later, the prescient collector, Peggy Guggenheim befriended and supported a coterie of artists who lead the charge of Modernism as it has been canonized. Guggenheim’s support extended beyond simply developing markets for these artists; she also built institutions for intellectual exchange. Her legacy, alongside those institutions that bear her name, is writ large on the cityscapes of Venice, New York, Bilbao, and Abu Dhabi.
On November 28, 2017, Holland Cotter wrote an extensive and revealing article about Louvre Abu Dhabi, the new home of Salvator Mundi. He describes in vivid language an architecture that begs a visit, and an intelligent approach to building a collection given the constraints of the market (i.e., what objects are currently available). Equally important, Cotter conveys the institution’s perspective on collecting in a way that points to a prescriptive vision of the future. The challenges of articulating the cultural patrimony of an emerging nation in futuristic terms are a complex problem to solve in this era when pillage and plunder have been deemed unethical. Instead, nationally-celebrated museums like those in Abu Dhabi must negotiate long-term loans with partner institutions, such as the Paris Louvre, and carefully, slowly, assemble objects and works that articulate a view of culture in ways relevant to broader sweeps of humanity than previously seen. Cotter expresses his delight in the curatorial strategies used to animate a new and growing collection with an eye to building visual associations that transverse and transcend time and space. This is an important museum for any curator or collector to see, for it imagines a poetic future. I am curious to know its plans for disseminating its art historical perspective.
There are lessons to be learned from the depth and integration of different arms of art’s ecosystem. A consummate visionary collector, Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, announced this year that a significant selection from her world-class collection of Latin American art would be distributed among museums with the capacity to steward these works. The Denver Art Museum is among the illustrious group, not only because of its stellar Spanish Colonial collection, but also because the collection is being historicized, theorized, and curated by a leading scholar in the field. The DAM’s Frederick and Jan Mayer Curator of Spanish Colonial Art, Jorge Rivas Pérez, by no coincidence, worked for many years at the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC). Patricia Phelps de Cisneros has had the vision to cultivate and support leading scholarly curators who have assumed significant roles globally. The well-thought out decisions of a collector of her caliber is an example that can serve emerging, powerful collectors, such as those behind the Louvre Abu Dhabi and others, like the Sharjah Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates. These institutions are participating globally through the collection, creation, and presentation of visual art. Their reach will be furthered through endowing positions in museums, universities, and art schools throughout the world.
Agnes Gund has always been understood as a force for good through her collecting and philanthropy. This year, however, by a singular, focused decision, Ms. Gund has risen above the clutter and noise of the art world and set a visionary example. In many an interview you will find her expressing a deep attachment to different artworks she has acquired, and in some cases, when working with living artists, that attachment extends to the artist. Her decision to sell her prized 1962 Roy Lichtenstein Masterpiece to fund an initial donation of one hundred million dollars to establish the Art and Justice Fund has begun to inspire a much-needed shift among collectors. The reaction among peer philanthropists has been a steady flow of contributions to this necessary program through the cultivation of a group of founding donors. The donation was not made lightly. Ms. Gund has made the decision to translate Lichtenstein’s Masterpiece into a bold new effort to end mass incarceration. Through a coherent relationship with the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, this visionary collector has transformed the reach and power of this pop art painting. The humor of this choice is also not lost, for the painting’s fortuitous messaging imagines the artist’s future success in the New York art market.
The recent decisions of Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and Agnes Gund point to a bright future. This brings me back around to the Louvre Abu Dhabi and its stunning potential as a beacon for experimental, challenging curatorial work, through strong bonds with visionary collectors. I can see a new approach to art history, embodied by the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s approach to collecting and programming, which prioritizes the layers and complexities that inform cultural exchange and economies over the millennia and moving forward. Shifting perspectives conveyed through research, writing and discourse, partnered with visionary collectors, have the possibility of overriding prevailing art historical canons, whether the result of hegemonic imperialism or market-based speculation. I see the possibility of cultural institutions collaborating with collectors, curators, scholars and thinkers, to galvanize around intellectual and ethical stakes that are gaining traction in our fragmented, pluralistic artscape, allowing for a multiplicity of art histories to be written.
Yasmeen Siddiqui is the founder of Minerva Projects, minervaprojects.org, an incubator space in Denver, Colorado, that is tailored for artists and curators who seek to contextualize and historicize their ideas in an environment that encourages experimentation and new possibilities. Minerva Projects is committed to clarifying, by accurately describing and theorizing, the practices of artists and curators through engaging with leading thinkers and writers who animate its traveling exhibitions program and the Minerva Press book series. The project was launched in October 2017. Siddiqui is also a writer and curator; pasts subjects have included Do Ho Suh, Consuelo Castañeda, Hassan Khan, Linda Ganjian, Pia Lindman, Lara Baladi, Mary Carothers, Matt Lynch and Chris Vorhees, and Mel Charney. Her writing has appeared on Hyperallergic and in ART PAPERS, The Cairo Times, Medina Magazine, Flash Art, Modern Painters, NKA, and The Brooklyn Rail, and in books and exhibition catalogues including: Fault Lines Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes. inIVA, London, 2003; A Contingent Object of Research. Storefront Books, New York, 2010; Do Ho Suh: Home Within Home. Leeum: Samsung Museum of Art, 2012; “Do Ho Suh” in If you were to live here: The 5th Auckland Triennial, 2013; and On Architecture: Melvin Charney, a Critical Anthology. Edited by Louis Martin. Montreal: McGill — Queen’s University Press, 2013.
Tilt West’s mission is to promote critical discourse focused on arts and culture through live events and publishing efforts. We aim to provide a platform for inclusive community discussion and debate on a range of issues relevant to cultural production in Colorado and beyond. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions of the organization. For more information about our programs, including audio recordings of roundtable discussions, go to our website: tiltwest.org.