NB: As my "About" page states, the opinions and ideas expressed here are solely those of the respective authors and should not be taken to reflect the opinions or ideas of any other individual, institution, or organization. That's true of all posts and comments, but I just want to say that it's double extra true for the post below.
"Things I Love", an exhibition of the collection of businessman William I. Koch at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has been the topic of so much impassioned discussion that I thought I'd begin last Friday by taking a look. I'm not necessarily against a museum featuring a private collection for an exhibition. The Damien Hirst show at the MFA last year was largely drawn from the Broad Collection, and acknowledged as such, and no one complained - well, about the loan, that is. Given the nature of Koch's collection, the usual fear that museum display will favor commercial interests doesn't really apply. No one can seriously imagine an auction house raising the estimate on a Monet Waterlillies or Modigliano nude because it spent a couple of months at the MFA. And while the exhibition undoubtedly was part of an attempted seduction of Koch by the Museum, that in itself is no crime. It unfortunately remains the case that collecting museums in general need to cultivate wealthy patrons for donations; the judgment rests on how it's done and what results. In this case, the exhibition aimed not only to show important art and historical artifacts, but to showcase the personality of the collector as well. How it did so, and what emerged, is therefore an inevitable part of judging the show.
What even passers by can't miss about the exhibition are the famous boats displayed in front of the Museum. As a public relations gambit, which is how Malcolm Rogers described them, they can't be said to not have had an impact. Most of the attention has been negative, but Rogers seems to belong firmly to the school of "no such thing as bad publicity." And let's face it: little probably would have been written about a relatively small exhibition of a private collection if it weren't for the presence of such an over-the-top gesture.
But aside from as a ploy, how do they work? Sleek, impressive things in themselves, the two vessels don't stand comfortably in front of the Museum. The photo at the Globe article linked to above, taken as it is from the Museum looking out, doesn't really capture their impact on the approaching visitor or anyone passing along. The boats make the Huntington St. entrance of the museum feel small, diminishing it in an overbearing way. Worse, they tower over and obscure the Cryus Dillin sculpture of an American Indian on horseback that stands below and between them on the lawn. The statue was long the very symbol of the Museum, and given its subject - the title is Appeal to the Great Spirit - the overtones couldn't be worse.
The collection itself contains some great things, though they are mostly known quantities, a few small surprises, and too much vulgarity. I liked the Remington paintings more than I thought I would, especially this one, which had been featured at the National Gallery some time in the past. The color effects are even better in person. There's a great, steely Renoir - very rarely are those words words put together - and a Monet Waterlillies. Nothing to complain about there. Other good paintings from 19th and early 20th century American artists as well - Homer, some Regionalists. The guns and western artefacts weren't of interest to me, but that's not to say that they have no interest to others or don't belong in a museum of some kind. The wine bottles serve at best as deluxe stagedressing.
From the title and reverent catalog to the indulgence of monumental whims, the entire exhibition is designed with the aim of flattering the lender, which raises the quesiton: will the MFA get anything in return? A quid pro quo isn't the way these things are done, but given the, shall we say, solicitousness the Museum has shown, I'm sure they're hoping for something important. Koch has played coy about giving anything. But with all due respect to MFA curator George Shackleford, who believes a gift from Koch could "totally transform" the collection, even if he gave all the works displayed, it would only affect the margins of the MFA's largest hole. I'm sure the Museum wants the Monet and Renoir, and it's good to build on strengths, but it's not as if Boston lacks for Impressionism. European modernism is what the Museum needs, and Koch can't help them much there. Too many of the works he has are minor or late, or just bad: post-1950 Picasso in neoclassical mode, Miro from the early '70s, a kitschy Magritte. A late '20s Matisse sounds promising, but it is a small and simple painting. I'm not saying it's all dreary, but the idea that these works would help the MFA tell the story of 20th century painting in any complete way is not serious. Even the more important works are, I think, overestimated, though that's a very relative judgment. The Modigliani nude and a blue period Picasso are among the standouts, and would fill particular gaps for the Museum. But when I think of the MFA, I don't find myself thinking, "That place would be perfect if it just had an early Picasso." Its needs are more substantial than that, at least for 20th century Europe.
Taken as a whole, the collection has a somewhat disturbing undertone. As Cate McQuaid, in her review for the Globe, pointed out, there's something a bit icky about Koch's emphasis on paintings of female nudes. Taken with the wine bottles, the neoclassical Picasso tiles, Bacchic antiquities, and the western art, there's a certain Wine Spectator-ish, aging satyr aesthetic to the collection. That aesthetic, which one can only feel is intended, makes even the best works feel a little prurient and overwhelms some of the lesser ones. Obviously a lot of great art involves eroticism at some level, but the pervasive obviousness of it here feels sort of unpleasant: would you like to see his etchings? If the exhibition aimed, as Rogers has said, at showing the personality of the collector, it succeeded perhaps a little too well.
One of the problems in seeking to put the collector on display is that negative judgments carry personal implications, which isn't enjoyable for anyone. McQuaid's mixed but basically negative review ran Sept. 2; it followed an Aug. 9 column, since removed, by Alex Beam that harshly criticized Koch, who then began hinting at legal action against the paper. On Sept. 18, the Globe ran a kinda-sorta second review, not by one of their usual visual arts writers, giving a more positive assessment of the exhibition. Rogers justifies the exhibit and its installation on the grounds of drawing new visitors in, but it's hard to see how a show of its nature will do that, boats or no. In the end, no one is exactly covered in glory.
As for me, after taking in the show, I wandered some of the other galleries. In them I saw the MFA doing some of what it does best, as in an expansive, fascinating scholarly exhibition on Asian musical instruments and art, "Sounds of the Silk Road." I spent some time in the colonial American galleries, where I was reminded that not only is the Museum a great treasure house of art, it cares for objects that are of fundamental importance to our nation: Paul Revere's Sons of Liberty Bowl, Gilbert Stuart's unfinished portraits of George and Martha Washington, Copley's paintings of Revere, John Hancock, Mercy Otis and so many others. So much of what the MFA does, it does extraordinarily well, and like any large museum, it does many different things across a range of levels and for varying audiences. What needs to be asked of an exhibition like "Things I Love" is how it fits into the best traditions of a great institution. Without attacking Mr. Koch, or dismissing the many fine objects he possesses, I think it's the case that it doesn't. But the problem isn't one of ethics, as it sometimes is portrayed, at least not at the root: rather, it's one of judgment and taste.