Exhibition Inquisition

The stuff you look at, but don't see.

Chapter 3 (Part1): Collector-Created Cultural Capitals

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Los Angeles in my view is becoming the contemporary art capital of the world.”[i] – Eli Broad

LA, or certain people who write about the art scene in LA, or people who get quoted about the art scene in LA, seems to have an inferiority complex.  Everything that happens in the arts (a new exhibition, a new art fair, a new museum director…) is deemed the thing that will finally turn LA into an/the art capitol.  William Poundstone did a survey of this decades-long mentality[ii] this week inspired by an article in The Economist titled, “2014 may prove a turning point for art museums in Los Angeles.”[iii] But come on – LA, people who write about the art scene in LA, people who get quoted about the art scene in LA, and the people of LA have nothing to prove.  The Getty squashed that issue a few years ago, didn’t it?

Getty_Pacific Standard Time_PST_Street Banner_Palm Tree

Do you remember?

Back in 2011, the Getty’s ten-years-in-the-making endeavor, Pacific Standard Time (or PST as it has come to be known) opened.  Over 60 institutions across Southern California presented exhibitions focused on the region’s art scene between the years of 1945 and 1980.  The Getty’s goal was to record, preserve, and present the many contributions Southern Californian artists and arts organizations made to contemporary art during the time period.  Initial grants were given to arts organizations to catalogue archives from the period, followed by exhibition grants.  Some of these exhibitions traveled to other venues in the country and some traveled internationally.  Catalogues from these exhibitions were published and quickly integrated into university curriculums.  Besides this trove of scholarship, another goal of PST was to present Los Angeles as an artistic capital.

Predictably, the most critical opinions of PST came from New York. New York Times critic, Adam Nagourney, dismissively referred to the massive PST endeavor as a “festival.”[iv]  The East Coast’s paranoid opinion of PST’s attempt to usurp New York City as the art capital was comical to witness, mostly because it was so misguided.  PST’s intention was never to prove that Los Angeles was the (singular) post-war art capital of America, but rather that it was another, alternative, equally important art capital.  In an increasingly globalized world there is no longer one definitive art capital—arguably there never ever has been just one art capital.

Frank Gehry designed Disney Concert hall first.

Frank Gehry designed Disney Concert hall first.

There are many new art capitals in various stages of development around the world.  Cities and governments increasingly recognize the civic role arts and culture play.  Cities also recognize the potential economic benefits of arts and culture organizations. This is a result of the “Bilbao Effect[v] – the redevelopment effect that the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao had on transforming an industrial port town in northern Spain into a must-see cultural tourism destination.  But even in Spain, the Bilbao Effect has failed in other cities.[vi] The Bilbao Effect, with its lure of economic success, has turned into a “Bilbao Bug,” a global pandemic.  Cities worldwide are devoting public resources (the smarter cities to private-public resources) for museum projects in an attempt to establish themselves as cultural capitals.

The worst sufferer of the Bilbao Bug is actually the metaphorical pharmacist, the Guggenheim.  Having already expanded its brand from New York and Venice to Bilbao and Berlin (the Berlin branch closed its doors at the end of 2012),[vii] a Frank-Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is currently under construction (though the project has slowed and become a locus of controversy).[viii] And more Guggenheims may be on the way.  The Finnish government paid the Guggenheim Foundation 2.5 million dollars for a feasibility study for a Guggenheim Helsinki, which would have been financed through private and public investments.[ix]  Protesters in Finland opposed the museum, amid other cultural budget cuts, and because of the fact that the Guggenheim’s feasibility study was never translated into Finnish.[x]  The government bowed to pressures and rejected the initial proposal, but is currently reviewing a revised proposal and an architectural competition was announced last month.[xi]  The franchise thrives!

If you build it, they will come to Abu Dhabi.

If you build it, they will come to Abu Dhabi.

While many cities fall ill to the Bilbao Bug, few cities have the financial resources required for the pricey medication: a prescription written and patented by the Guggenheim.  The solution to this is for cities to seek out public-private investment relationships.  This is where an increasingly large group of immensely rich art collectors comes into play (they might be the health insurance company in this metaphor).  These elite collectors, motivated to display their collections in “starchitecture” buildings, often gain the consent and encouragement (and sometimes a portion of funding) from the cities and states in which they are located.  These spaces are not passive buildings and in many instances are utilized as triggers to fuel further (re)development, to fuel a desired Bilbao Effect.

Private collector museums are hardly new. Europe’s oldest and most famous museums, including the Louvre, the Hermitage, and the Prado began as princely (private) collections. In America, private collectors founded the Frick, the Whitney and the Guggenheim to name just a few.  Even LA, so desperate to prove itself, has four major private collector museums: the Getty, the Huntington, the Hammer and the Norton Simon – and soon LA will have a fourth: the Broad courtesy of Eli Broad.

Even though there is precedence for private collector museums, the motivations behind their development are changing. Cities are increasingly pressed to bill themselves as cultural capitals, drawing temporary visitors, permanent residents, and a diversity of business. This process can turn into competitive sport as in the case of Abu Dhabi versus Qatar; the two Middle Eastern, oil-rich nations are engaged in an arms race to spend fortunes on art collections and on architectural monuments to house them, all in an attempt to draw cultural tourists and international business.

Books instead of buildings.

Books instead of buildings.

An alternative to this craze for building private collector museums is instead to do what the Getty did with Pacific Standard Time.  PST was deemed so successful (not just as an economic booster-$111.5 million ain’t bad[xii]) that the Getty followed up in 2013 with a smaller sized Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A., a series 11 exhibitions.  The Getty is also planning another PST for 2017: Pacific Standard Time: L.A./L.A., which will focus on artistic connections between Los Angeles and Latin America.  Rather than spending money on a new museum buildings, the Getty and the City are instead promoting the region through grantmaking to existing institutions, encouraging research and scholarship, which will be enjoyed through museum exhibitions and public programming throughout Southern California.


[i] Jori Finkel, “Los Angeles is primed: Art fair, please step up,” Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2011.
[ii] William Poundstone, “LA Comes of Age (Groundhog Day),” Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, February 2, 2014, blogs.artinfo.com/lacmonfire/2014/02/02/l-a-comes-of-age-groundhog-day.
[iii] “2014 may prove a turning point for art museums in Los Angeles,” The Economist, January 4, 2014.
[iv] Adam Nagourney, “Los Angeles Stakes Its Claim as a World Art Center,” New York Times, October 12, 2011.
[v] “The Bilbao Effect,” The Economist, December 21, 2013.
[vi] Grace Quah, “Valencia to sue Calatrava over falling masonry in City of Arts and Sciences,” Dezeen Magazine, January 2, 2014, http://www.dezeen.com/2014/01/02/santiago-calatrava-city-of-arts-and-sciences.
[vii] Alexander Forbes, “Guggenheim Announces it will shutter its Berlin branch at the End of 2012,” ArtInfo, February 6, 2012, http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/758938/guggenheim-announces-that-it-will-shutter-its-berlin-branch-at-the-end-of-2012.
[viii] Georgine Adam, “Guggenheim Abu Dhabi on hold,” The Art Newspaper, October 2011.
[ix] “A Guggenheim Helsinki? Finland Pays $2.5 Million to be the Museum’s Latest Suitor,” ArtInfo, January 18, 2011, http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/36756/a-guggenheim-helsinki-finland-pays-25-million-to-be-the-museums-latest-suitor.
[x] Julia Halperin, “Workers Protest Finland’s Museum Cuts Even as the Glamorous Helsinki Guggenheim Pushes Ahead,” ArtInfo, February 13, 2012, http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/759747/workers-protest-finlands-museum-cuts-even-as-helsinki-guggenheim-project-pushes-ahead.
[xi] Carol Vogel, “Guggenheim will Invite Architects to Imagine a Finnish Outpost,” New York Times ArtsBeat, January 13, 2014, artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/13/guggenheim-will-invite-architects-to-imagine-a-finnish-outpost.
[xii] Jori Finkel, “Visitor spending to attend Pacific Standard Time: $111.5 million,” Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2012.

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  1. […] follows is a global survey of private collector museums meant to illustrate the spread of the Bilbao Bug and the various ways these public-private museum projects […]


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