I'm not sure how many people are really interested in this topic, but since it's nagging at me a bit, I'm going to follow up: all I can tell from the recent flutter of posts regarding museum exhibitions drawn from private collections is that people's feelings regarding them are conflicted, perhaps more than they admit. Culturegrrl, for instance, laid out some facts that she sees in retrospect as warning signs for MFA and its jade exhibition (that one of the collectors involved had worked as a dealer, they had auctioned off other areas of their collection, and the jades themselves had been previously displayed at Christie's, for instance.) Lee suggested that museums should display individual loans from private collections (unless they are headed to market soon) but avoid exhibitions from a single private lender unless the works are pledged to the museum. If one feels that such a guideline is needed, this probably isn't a bad one, though it's somewhat arbitrary and might still rule out some perfectly worthy shows. Even Lee acknowledges that serious people might not agree, as she today devotes a post to dissenting opinions, including a kind link here and a suggestion that small museums be exempted from any such rule.
Meanwhile, Richard Lacayo smiled at the MFA's predicament, but Tyler asked a good question in the comments: "A few weeks ago you pooh-poohed the National Gallery of Art's near-identical enterprise. Surely it's as bad for the NGA to do it as it is for the MFAB?" It deserves a response, though Tyler's suggestion that exhibiting private collections might be illegal goes way over the top. I'm not going to criticize the MFA's exhibit, which I didn't see, nor have I seen the National Gallery's snapshot show, though I have the catalog and have looked it over. From that experience I can say that the NGA's display appears to be a serious one that has resulted in a significant piece of original scholarship, certainly one of the top goals one should have for any exhibition. It's also the case that it only features 200 or so of the lender's photographs out of a total of (if I remember correctly) over 8,000. That's far different from putting an entire collection on display and indicates the curatorial judgment and control exercised by the museum.
Remember as well that though the NGA won't get the entire collection, around half of the objects displayed have been donated to the museum. That doesn't meet the standard Lee sets, and Tyler has pooh-poohed the fact in the past, but it's a significant gift. Today Tyler seemed to step back from his criticism of SFMOMA, in fact, because instead of a forthcoming exhibition displaying a private collection it will instead include "works from SFMOMA's collection (fractional and promised gifts from the Logans) as well as works that are strictly in the Logan Collection (some are on loan from the Denver Art Museum)." Aside from the fact that promised gifts are not actually part of a museum's collection (they are promised, nothing more, and promises can be undone), it seems we have here an exhibition that will show a mix of donated and privately owned work ultimately from a single collector--yet that doesn't seem to be a problem. So perhaps the questions should be asked: what separated SFMOMA's exhibit from the NGA's? Why withdraw criticism of one and not the other?
While Lee draws the pragmatic distinction between loans of individual objects and entire groups of them, furthermore, I don't believe I've ever seen Tyler do the same. But most of the criticisms he makes of private collections in museums can be made of single loans, or small groups of them, just on a smaller scale. The Martin Puryear exhibition in New York that's he's been writing so well about this week, for instance, has by my count loans from over a dozen different private collection, in some cases of multiple objects. And let's not forget the biggest loan of all--that from the artist himself, who contributed over 10 works. Many people won't mind if the artist, seen as a deserving creator, benefits, as opposed to icky collectors, but the principle of private gain from public display remains the same (Puryear's auction high is in the mid-700,000's somewhere; think he'll top one million after MoMA's done?). That the artist and other lenders stand to potentially reap financial rewards does not, in my mind, mean that the exhibition should be considered ethically verboten. Indeed, if it was, we might as well tell 90% of the museums of contemporary art in the country to go out of business--the overwhelming number of exhibitions they do are drawn from private loans, most prominently from artists and their galleries.
So rather than attack institutions for acting improperly when they do what's been common practice in the field for time immemorial, let's keep it in perspective. A broad rule isn't the solution; rather, the key is how a particular loan or exhibition is handled. Does display of the work offer something of value to the public? Does having the object(s) available add to the institution's ability to pursue scholarship? Is the manner of presentation done according to museum standards and in a way that does credit to the institution? Can the museum feel with a high degree of certainty that the lender will respect the honor of a museum display and not rush the work to market? These are the kinds of questions one should ask. Ultimately, no matter what museums do, their actions will have some consequences in the broader world; better to realize that, take into account how some might try to use the institution for their own benefit, and do one's best to serve the public. That will always be a balancing act.