And LACMA has it better than some: Govan estimates that one third of the museum’s trustees collect contemporary art, and, as the director notes, it never hurts to cultivate close relationships with “collectors who don’t have limited budgets.” Indeed, Eli Broad is roughly a modern-day analogue to Seymour Knox. The billionaire megacollector gave $50 million for a new building on the LACMA campus and an additional $10 million for acquisitions. Called the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, it’s set to open next year.
But not every museum is blessed with a sugar-daddy donor like Broad. Smaller museums may have to make unenviable choices. After several years of deliberation, the Albright-Knox decided to unlock the riches in its own storeroom when it auctioned off 207 works through Sotheby’s in New York this past summer. The sale of antiquities and non-Western works, many of which came to the gallery during the tenure of a comparatively conservative director in the Thirties, realized about $71 million—with a single Roman bronze of the goddess Artemis with a stag selling for $28.6 million, a world-record price for any sculpture. But some critics called the decision a desperate measure for a desperate time. “A heinous blunder,” says veteran Manhattan dealer Richard Feigen, who believes it was shortsighted to swap a proven masterpiece for a handful of untested newer works.
Albright-Knox director Louis Grachos admits he has had to defend the institution against a barrage of criticism, but counters that the works sold were “outside the modernist tradition” and thus extraneous to the gallery’s core mission of collecting the art of its time. (The bronze, he points out, had not been shown at the gallery since 1997.) And the sale proceeds, he insists, are crucial to the museum’s future survival. When they are added to the preexisting $22 million acquisitions endowment, the total pot of approximately $93 million will allow the gallery to spend as much as almost $5 million on new art annually.
“We now feel we can act very quickly to bring new work into the gallery,” says Grachos. “We can continue to grow the collection in smart and exciting ways and not be reduced to second-tier work.” In the months since the sale, the Albright-Knox’s art committee has moved quickly to approve a large Philip Taaffe mixed media on canvas, a Bruce Nauman video installation jointly owned with the Whitney Museum and a Sol LeWitt wall drawing that had been conceptualized just before the painter’s death in April. And although the gallery declines to provide sale prices, its earlier purchase of the Barney “Drawing Restraint” work was said to have cost $325,000.