From the Editor’s Desk: On Conflicts of Interest and Glass Houses

By July 18, 2014
Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, video still from Le Baiser/The Kiss, 1999, in which the artist cleans the glass walls of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House.

Occasionally in the art world, you’ll hear some noise about conflicts of interest, despite the fact that the art world is rife with conflicts of interest. The arts arguably could not sustain themselves without such webs of contact. The conflicts happen in the upper echelons of art commerce and stewardship as much as on the bottom tier. Small, grassroots organizations might even run into conflicts more often, since they tend to fly under the radar and rely on the generosity of almost anyone. But the stakes are higher at large institutions, which tend to set the standards.

Join us for the Athens Art Book Fair this June!

Take, for example, the New Museum in New York. In 2010, the New Museum was a lightning rod of controversy when it mounted “Skin Fruit,” an exhibition from the holdings of museum trustee Dakis Jouannou that was curated by Jeff Koons, who’s heavily represented in Joannou’s collection. Everyone cried foul, from bloggers to the New York Times. But the show went on. In response, the museum organized a symposium on the importance of private/public partnerships, noting that collectors often sit on museum boards that mount exhibitions of their holdings. It addressed the long tradition of such partnerships, which in the 19th and 20th centuries helped create and grow many of our most notable institutions, and the continuing need for similar arrangements as, for example, the price of desirable artworks would burn through many cultural institutions’ acquisitions budgets.

Then there was L.A. MOCA’s perplexing hiring in 2010 of prominent art dealer Jeffrey Deitch to head its already beleaguered, scandalized institution. As part of the arrangement, Deitch had to liquidate his gallery inventory, some of which was transferred to his personal collection. His hiring was largely attributable to the sway of philanthropist Eli Broad, a founding trustee of the museum who was criticized in January 2008, when he announced that he would not be leaving his personal collection to the L.A. County Museum, which was weeks away from opening his namesake building—the $56-million Broad Contemporary—erected with a $60-million gift and the designation of his own curator to install works from his collection. Instead, Broad transferred the works to his foundation for a museum he is constructing across the street from MOCA, to which he will not continue to make an annual $3 million donation that was part of its bailout plan. While not quite robbing Peter to pay Paul, the “Broad” is set to open later this year and will offer free admission.

Chris Ofili, The Upper Room, 1999; at Victoria Miro Gallery, June 2002. Collection Tate Britain.

Tate Britain and artist Chris Ofili were the focus of media furor when an installation by the artist, a Tate trustee from 2000 to 2005, was purchased by the museum for £705,000 while the artist was an active trustee. In light of media coverage and an internal investigation, it was revealed that the Tate had purchased seven works from its sitting artist trustees in the prior nine years. Britain’s Department for Culture, Media & Sport cleared the Tate of any wrongdoing in 2005. Holding such large, influential institutions accountable is understandable, but does it make sense to apply the same level of scrutiny to fledgling organizations?

It’s not always money that’s at stake in perceived conflicts of interest. I’d wager a bet that the number of artists, dealers, curators, directors, collectors, and journalists who are in bed with each other rivals the pairings of musicians, athletes, directors, actors, and models.

Melissa Chiu and Ben Genocchio, 2013.
Melissa Chiu and Ben Genocchio, 2013.

Benjamin Genocchio is the accomplished editor-in-chief of Artnet News and former editorial director of LTB MEDIA (publisher of Modern Painters, Art & Auction,, and others). He is married to Asia Society Museum director Melissa Chiu, who was recently appointed director of the Hirshhorn Museum, effective September 29. It would be ludicrous for the magazines not to cover those prominent institutions because of a perceived conflict.

Join us for the Athens Art Book Fair this June!

Similarly, New York dealer Matthew Marks and Jack Bankowsky, editor of Artforum from 1992 to 2003, have been a couple for years, information readers would not have gleaned from reading numerous reviews of exhibitions at Marks’s gallery. [More power couples are listed here.

In an incident in 2008, well-regarded art critic Christian Viveros-Fauné was forced to resign his post at the Village Voice when contentious blogger Tyler Green (Modern Art Notes) raised questions about his concurrent position as director of the Volta and Next art fairs, the implication being that Viveros-Fauné might use his critical writing to promote the fair, its participating galleries, and artists. Viveros-Faune, who was reinstated at the Voice in 2009, after resigning from the fairs, was also a key figure in the 1990s Williamsburg art scene as co-founder of Roebling Hall gallery, which he also operated while serving as art critic for the New York Press and contributing to such magazines as Art in America, with no brouhaha.

But obviously, Atlanta is not New York, London, Berlin, or even Los Angeles. Our art world is a small pond of dedicated art lovers who do a lot with very little. Because there are fewer of “us” in the field with the depth and breadth of know-how, we see even more cross-pollination than in those larger cities and art communities.

To cite just a few examples in Atlanta (and cities like it), we have art dealers and gallery owners who sit on museum and nonprofit boards; artists, curators, and art presenters who sit on the boards of the magazines and websites that provide much needed critical coverage, including that of their own galleries, institutions, and productions; would-be competitors who sit on each other’s boards; freelancers who flit among competing parties; and artists who run or work at nonprofits that make acquisitions of their work and of their friends.

Larger trends in the art world include publications and critics curating exhibitions. Whether that is seen as favoritism or putting your money where your mouth is depends on whether one considers a brick-and-mortar presentation much different than media coverage in that both are promotional tools.

Because newspapers are supposed to present balanced, unbiased stories and facts, journalists must adhere to a strict code of ethics that is not so common in arts publications, where opinions and judgments are the order of the day (or used to be, but that’s another contentious story). Many major art magazines have an implicit understanding with authors that they not write about someone with whom they’re romantically involved (or even good friends), or about an artist or gallery with whom they have a past or present relationship or stand to benefit from through their promotion. Very rarely is that agreement contractual. In a city like Atlanta—where artist/gallery allegiances are ephemeral—such an agreement would silence the voices of many qualified and informed candidates who work with or have shown at numerous locations.

When it comes to art writing, the College Art Association has issued extensive guidelines that address the issue of subject/author and editor/author relationships for its own scholarly publications, Art Journal and the Art Bulletin. Individuals it considers a potential conflict for a reviewer include an immediate family member, domestic or professional partner, research collaborator, thesis or dissertation advisor/advisee, job candidate, and a current teacher, mentor, or student.

David Altmejd, detail of The Flux and The Puddle, 2014; mixed media, at Andrea Rosen Gallery, NYC.

In such instances, CAA advises: “If a reviewer has any personal relationship or conflict of interest with a contributor (including creator, author, or curator), then that relationship must be disclosed within the review … If the editor performs due diligence in checking for potential conflicts, [that proposal] may legitimately be accepted. Consultation with an editorial-board chair and disclosure of potential conflict are recommended.”

It is that spirit that Burnaway favors a policy of disclosure rather than exclusion. All in all, there’s a certain level of trust that must accompany these complex relationships. Atlanta needs all hands on deck to become the art city we want it to be. Let’s do the best we can.

Related Stories