The Fluffer

Published: November 13, 2009

By Jim Lichtman
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“A person who maintains a pornstar’s erection between scenes; a broker of products or services that gets the client ready.”
– Urban Dictionary

The New Museum of Contemporary Art “…has evolved from a scrappy alternative space into a mainstream institution,” The New York Times reported (Nov. 11). However, in the opinion of many, the Museum “…is jeopardizing its integrity by giving too much power to a board member with a vested interest in the artists he collects.”

“Dakis Joannou,” The Times writes, “is considered one of the most important contemporary art collectors in the world. And the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Manhattan is preparing to showcase his vast collection in a three-story exhibition.”

And Mr. Joannou also sits on the board of the New Museum and therein lies the ethical quandary.

“Maybe it is a fantastic collection, but the museum is a public trust: nonprofit, tax exempt and government supported,” said Noah Kupferman, a former specialist at Sotheby’s who teaches a course called Fine Art as a Financial Asset at New York University. “It is supposed to be an independent arbiter of taste and art-historical value. It is not supposed to surrender itself to a trustee and donor whose collection stands to be enhanced in value by a major museum show.”

Not surprisingly, the New Museum sees things differently.

“We think the public will be the beneficiaries of [Mr. Joannou’s] very generous agreement to allow works from his foundation to cross the ocean,” said Lisa Phillips, the New Museum’s director. “I understand why some people might consider it a perceived conflict, but we’re confident that the initiative is artistically and intellectually important and ethically legitimate, consistent with our mission and our vision.”

And what is the New Museum’s mission?

Well, I went to the museum’s web site, clicked on “Mission” and here’s what I found, in big, bold aquamarine colors:  “NEW ART NEW IDEAS.” That’s it.

“Museums,” The Times writes, “have always depended on collectors for loans and donations, and some have a long history of exhibiting private collections. But a decade ago,Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection at the Brooklyn Museum prompted an ethical debate …because the collection’s owner, the advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, was an active trader in the contemporary art market, Sensation also heightened concerns about museums… ‘acting more like commercial galleries,’ said Erik Ledbetter, director of international programs and ethics at the American Association of Museums.”

So, I consulted the Association’s Code of Ethics… all 2,599 words that are long on lofty values statements but short on specific guidelines other than a statement which says that, “the governing authority ensures that:  all those who work for or on behalf of a museum understand and support its mission and public trust responsibilities”; a statement far too broad and far too open to interpretation.

However, the Association’s Code does state that, “its members understand and fulfill their trusteeship and act corporately, not as individuals.”

Okay, but what if the entire Board agrees, as in the case of the New Museum, that the exhibit serves the museum’s mission and the public trust?

I contacted an art dealer about this issue.  His response, “Jim, at least 70% of paintings lent to museums are lent for unethical reasons.  There is such broad collusion in the art world between museums and dealers that it baffles me.  When people turn public good into private gain, ultimately nothing is benefited.”

Common practice notwithstanding, when the New Museumdecided to become a “fluffer” for one of its own trustees, the board surrendered its integrity and the public’s trust.


  1. Author

    Mr. Ethics, I have followed your blog for some time. This is the most hard hitting and fractious column I have seen come from you. As titillating as your starting quote is, the substance of the article is genuine. Your comparison of the museum where trustees feature their own collection to the rumored porn “extra” is harsh, but accurate in many cases.

    It will be interesting to see how the art world responds to your comparison. My guess, they will avoid the subject. There has been many-a-museum exhibit their trustees collections with the hope of benefiting at some later date. More than once the trustees of the world have used their insider position to coerce a curator to show their collection, only to have the work show up a year later at auction.

    Your effort to call attention to this issue is commendable. But my guess is that there will be very few “links” to your essay on PC’s in museums. It is unfortunate.

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