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Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Mr. Collector and His Curator Problems

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the home of a Very Important Collector. Mr. Collector employs a curator who reinstalls his collection every year. Mr. Collector needs a curator because he owns more art than some small museums.

I’ve visited Mr. Collector’s home before. The last time I was there, I was looking at a recent piece by a popular artist that, frankly, didn’t impress me. Mr. Collector snuck up behind me and said, “The first time I saw that I thought it was someone doing a bad imitation” of the artist in question. (Mr. Collector knows art and has a good eye.) I replied, “Well, what drew you to it? Why did you end up buying it?” Mr. Collector responded, “I didn’t. My curator did.” Then he walked away.

He doesn’t employ that curator anymore.

She may not have had the best eye for acquisitions, but that curator knew how to install a show. She anchored the home’s longest sight lines with showstoppers. She hung small, light-emitting pieces in dark corners. She successfully juxtaposed a grand with a tiny piece in the living room. The work was museum quality, but the apartment didn’t feel like a museum. I could picture myself living with art like that.

Mr. Collector’s current curator has recently reinstalled his home. In this year’s installation, Mr. Collector’s walls are, for the most part, crammed with masses of small works on paper. Photography predominates (some recent work, some vintage), but drawings make a solid showing too. Although there are a lot of them hung now, not many of the pieces have enough weight to stand on their own. As a whole, when installed in mass, the groupings don’t stand up well either.

The installation hung in the entryway, for example, mixes work by a 1920s photographer, a contemporary photographer, and photographers from several generations in between. A large number of German snapshots hang just around the corner—including one of someone’s seven-inch schlong laid out over a room-service tray with remnants of a morning meal still on it. (I don’t know if that particular photograph has a title, but Breakfast Sausage would be appropriate.) Ten non-descript drawings and prints hang clustered together on a short wall in another room.

For the installation, it seems, Mr. Collector’s curator has taken her inspiration from what Tyler Green calls the “scattertrash” approach to installation seen so much in Chelsea of late. Boiling it down, the approach works like this. You take a whole lot of different stuff, much of it cheap or junk (the “trash” part), and then you strew it around in great billowing piles without taking into consideration the space, the viewers’ experience, or really anything else at all (the “scatter” part). It’s grungy. Anti-aesthetic. Hipster. Farther downtown than downtown. It’s pure Williamsburg.

It’s also affected, boring, flat, and vapid.

Overall, Mr. Collector’s collection is both deep and broad. If you’ve gone to a museum show featuring contemporary art in the last decade, you’ve probably seen a piece that he owns because Mr. Collector is incredibly generous about sharing his collection by lending works to traveling shows. (He's also very kind about inviting people who don’t necessarily deserve the invitation—people like me—into his home.)

But for the next twelve months, traveling museum shows are the only places to see the best parts of his collection because Mr. Collector’s curator has scraped the bottom of the collection’s barrel and scattered that work all around his home. Mr. Collector’s curator isn’t going to let him live with his fabulous collection of art for the next year.

Maybe it’s time for Mr. Collector to find a new curator like he did after his old one bought the bad work I saw on my last visit. After all, the installation for this year is done now. It’s about time to bring on next year’s curator so she has some time to learn the collection for the fall 2005 installation.

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