Museum Business

THAT OLD CAUTION, CAVEAT EMPTOR, does not just apply to shoppers. It applies to museum-users as well. And why not? Museum-going is increasing another kind of shopping. More precisely, it encourages and provides cover for that particular kind of shopping called “collecting.
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The Neuberger Museum holds hands with Faith Ringgold and Raven Editions to offer you, the consumer of art and all its blessings, “a unique collecting opportunity.”  It invites you to step up to the collection plate and purchase a Ringgold print:

Big Black, 2010, Faith Ringgold’s most recent seriograph, is a collaboration between the artist, her longtime printer Curlee Holton of Raven Editions, and the Neuberger Museum of Art.

Executed in an edition of 125, each work is signed and numbered by the artist and is derived from a 1967 painting of the same title, the first in her celebrated Black Light Series produced between 1967 and 1969.

Hawking art, like any other product, requires a sales pitch:

In Big Black, 2010, the [Harlem-born] artist reinvestigates the original work, brightening her palette. Both works, old and new, are investigations of identity and difference, literally and figuratively, as both images emanate light without the use of the color white.

Faith Ringgold, Black Light Series: Big Black (1967)

Interesting touch, emphasizing omission of the color white. Any racial undertones there, you think? Try to imagine this in reverse: A white artist creates a series called Big White in which darkling tones are all created without the color black and proud of it. You think it would fly?

Would it be impolite to mention that, without white light, there would be no color at all? And that all the tints in Ms. Ringgold’s own series are dependent on the addition of white to chosen pigments?
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Observing the ordinary sense of things is less important, it seems, than a chance to dig Whitey in the ribs. [He is so guilty, he won’t notice.]

The transaction is all in a good cause. It gives Ringgold an opportunity to recycle older work, distributing it to a fresh audience. And proceeds raised through the sale of this print benefit exhibitions at the Neuberger Museum of Art. What goes unacknowledged, however, is the fact that the Neuberger has aligned itself with Ringgold’s art.

Whether it warrants that loyalty on grounds other than affirmative action is a question forever off the table at the museum. By entering into a commercial relationship with the production of any particular artist’s production, the museum compromises its public role as disinterested institution. In short, it becomes a vendor. It brings to market items that otherwise might not warrant a gilded showcase.

Postscript: The prints are available at $2,000. each.


© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey

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  1. Museums are already vendors–all kinds of tchotkes. What’s new?

  2. Not sure if it’s new or not but the point is that a museum is commissioning signed work for sale. Just like a commercial gallery. There is supposed to be a distance between the hallowed halls/walls of a museum and a gallery. In this instance the museum doesn’t just HAVE a shop. In effect, it IS a shop. Or behaves like one when it wants to raise cash.

  3. I am no expert in these things, but doesn’t the artist also get tax advantages for donating her imagery and labor to the museum’s project? Or does the museum purchase the images from the artist? Same applies to the printer. The whole thing comes down to a museum commissioning work. It becomes its own patron, in effect.

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