Wednesday, September 22, 2004
The Flip Flop on a Take-It-or-Leave-It Offer for MoMA
Brain Sholis pulls out the lead that's buried in the article's third-to-last paragraph. The gift, widely reported to be a take-it-or-leave-it-offer, isn't going to be proffered on those terms--at least not this week.
"The collection is not being presented to them as an all-or-nothing gift," Mr.With this statement, Miller reverses a quote he provided for a profile piece in the July 19 issue of New York Magazine:
Miller said. "If they want to accept some and not all of it, we'll cross that
bridge when we come to it. But knowing the views of the museum staff, I don't
believe it will come to that."
But if the Modern wants Garrels's picks, it'll have to play by Miller's rules.I would be really interested to learn the details of the agreement that I'm assuming Miller, Garrels, and other MoMA decision makers have reached in the last 60 days to get Miller to do this turn around. I'm assuming that this has become a very complicated deal on both sides, and I would love to know what other forms of currency have been called into play to lubricate the continued progress of this transaction.
"No cherry-picking!" he declares. "If there's one artist the institution doesn't
want, they have to decline the whole collection." MoMA and Garrels declined to
Interesting to me, as well, is the take Sholis has on the collection. He's seen a portion of it and has some information from other sources. "It's a very uneven collection," he writes. Based on the glimpse I got in yesterday's print Times and in the on-line slide show, I would agree.
But I'm not troubled only by the opaque nature and the uneveness of the gift. The whole situation makes me uneasy on several levels. Here are some of the major issue that I see with it:
- Miller climbed onto MoMA's board and is further solidifying his power base there by making gifts to the museum that have been purchased with foundation (not personal) funds. In his position as the sole trustee of the Judith Rothschild Foundation, he exercises judgment over foundation expenditures--frequently to his personal benefit, as seen here. (Incidentally, Miller paid himself a salary of $204,084 from the foundation in 2002. The foundation also reported $302,096 in travel and entertainment expenses during that year. In addition, according to Judith Rothschild's will, Miller's perks include housing at 1110 Park Avenue and use of a country estate.)
- Miller refers to this gift in the Times article as "a special discretionary initiative." Is this discretionary use of foundation funds truly in alignment with the foundation's mission, or is it Miller taking advantage of his position as sole trustee to enhance his standing at MoMA? Is he held accountable at all for how he disburses foundation money?
- Miller has been using his position on the board and using MoMA's name with artists and dealers to cherry-pick work off the market and to pay below-market prices for it, with no real assurance that the work will eventually end up in MoMA's collection.
- The collection has an insured value of $75 million, but the foundation listed assets of only $30.1 million in its report to the IRS at the end of 2002. Of this total, $20 million was artwork that the foundation already owned and $3.6 million was real estate. Assuming that Miller hasn't liquidated the foundation's art and real estate holdings and that he hasn't spent the full remainder of its assets, that leaves him with only a few million (perhaps $2-5 million) to have possibly spent on this collection. Even factoring in the substantial purchase discounts that Miller likely received, why this gigantic discrepancy between what he now holds and what he had available to purchase it? How much has Miller paid for these works over the last year, and how much is the collection really worth on the market?
- In the context of recent deaccessions, MoMA made claims for the need to prune its collection. Based on those arguments, can it really justify accepting what may be an uneven collection of works on paper--works that will require more careful handling, expensive storage, and conservation than the small number of paintings on canvas that it sold?
- Miller seems to be setting up a gift that will enter the museum's collection outside the typical processes. Sure MoMA's acquisitions committees are known to be vipers' nests of politics, but they do tend to ensure that good decisions get made. What makes Miller think his judgment on additions to the museum's collection shouldn't require the same level of vetting as any other board member's or curator's?
I am hoping that this gift and Miller's management of the foundation will receive increasing media scrutiny over the fall and into the new year--and not just puff pieces like what New York Magazine ran and PR pieces like yesterday's Times article.
And what a great placement that Times piece was--a true publicist's coup! I wonder what the Judith Rothschild Foundation will end up paying for that.