Sunday, May 15, 2011

Appreciating the gift of arts

A reader in Boston says he is "troubled" by a question regarding art and the public interest. "On the face of it," he writes, "the answer is simple, though I disagree with it completely."

Two museums that he regularly visits are made up of art from a single collector: The Barnes Museum in Philadelphia, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

"They share hallmarks lauded by many," he writes, "which I find repugnant. In each museum, the works have been arranged on the walls according to the whims of the collector and the wills of each collector stipulate that the works must be kept so in perpetuity."

He points out that the works in each museum represent tremendous milestones in art history, but that they are displayed in rooms that are "often dim, and at angles or heights which prevent adequate viewing, much less careful study."

What's more, the paintings and sculpture in each museum, he reports, lack titles or any text that might indicate their context or place within artistic timelines. "Furthermore, the works are forbidden to travel at all, thus robbing many large exhibitions of works which establish the full range and development of the artists on which they focus."

Based on all of these facts, he wonders if there is "any point in time at which the wills of the original collectors should, in furtherance of the education of artists and students and the enrichment of the public, be broken." To put it another way, he writes: "Could there be an ethical justification for artistic eminent domain?"

When art collectors donate paintings, sculpture or other pieces of art to museums, the museum staff likely has more control over how art is exhibited on the museum walls. When the museum itself is owned by the collector, the stipulation of how he or she wanted the art to be exhibited on the walls of their former homes is likely not as flexible.

Granted, there are bound to be as many art aficionados who love the quirk of museums like the Gardner and the Barnes precisely because of the unusual stipulations placed upon their holdings. (The Frick Collection in Manhattan is another such jewel that's among my personal favorites.)

There may come a time, as the reader notes, when there is mounting pressure to alter the stipulations of the wills of those whose collections are on display at a particular locale. It is possible that a good team of lawyers might be able to attack the original provisions of these wills.

But it might be good to remember when bemoaning the organizational choices of these benefactors, that they each also had the choice of willing the art to other private collectors upon their death. They also could have decided to break up their collections before their deaths selling off the individual pieces to other collectors. That they chose instead to leave their collections to be open for public viewing shouldn't be lost in determining what the most appropriate venue for viewing should be.

The right thing, I believe, is to honor the wishes of collectors who leave their homes and collections for public viewing without allowing others to take ownership because they "know better" how the art should be used. Like most gifts, of course, we can choose to take them or leave them.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I see no ethical component in either the decision of the museum management to change the artist's instructions for how the artworks are displayed or for the museum to break the artists instructions for display. The artist's instructions for display would be unbreakable unless the artists could be contacted to make desired changes. The status of the presentation of the artworks involving display and identification would seem to be totally the responsibility of the museum management. It is unlikely the artist or artists would have demanded that the artworks be displayed in odd presentations or poorly lighted conditions. Those decisions would be entirely at the discretion of the museum management or director, so the questioner should make known his or her dissatisfaction with the presentation of the artworks. I see no ethical questions involved about the display questions raised.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

"Everyone is doing it" is no basis for doing it yourself

Years ago, after I had left my job as a magazine editor and took a significant cut in pay to become an assistant professor at a liberal ...