The Laws of Nature

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Fine Art: Public or Private?

Last evening I viewed a documentary/opinion movie entitled “The Art of the Steal.” It focused upon how the Philadelphia Museum of Art managed to acquire and control the most important and valuable private collection of art, known as The Barnes Foundation, established by Albert C. Barnes in 1922. This foundation housed one of the world’s largest collections of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modern paintings purchased by Dr. Barnes with money he made from pharmaceuticals. At this point the collection is worth an estimated $35 billion. Housed in a beautiful building (photo) nearly five miles south of Philadelphia, Barnes hung his collection for the purposes of education. The Foundation’s “school” annually enrolled a small number of fine art students under the instruction of an even smaller contingent of faculty. The public was allowed access to view the collection only two days a week. Barnes hated the social elite in Philadelphia and had his lawyers draft a will to keep his Foundation intact and specifically out of the hands of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Time, greed, loopholes in the will, and political shenanigans undermined Barnes’ attempt to keep his Foundation intact as a private instructional institution with limited public access. In the year 2014 his collection will move into a newly constructed building in association with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and under the control of the Pew Foundation. This, of course, will bring in millions of tourist dollars annually for the city of Philadelphia. Barnes must be rolling in his grave.

I mention all this because it raises an interesting question: Is it imperative that the general public gain access to any and all significant private collections of fine art that exist? In other words, is the owner of a significant private collection of fine art beholden to the general public to share it? Who really owns great works of art, and when is a collection significantly large enough to become public domain?

What is your viewpoint?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Art Societies & Such

Hi all! I'm back in NY for a week to hang a solo show entitled "Eggsistential" at the Viewpoint Gallery (41 eggshell paintings). I'll return to Maine next week for the rest of the summer. I've missed my daily "chats" with you all and hope to make up for it by summer's end. In the meantime, I've been thinking about the role of art societies and want to solicit your opinions.

Over the past decade watercolor has been the dominant medium for my work (I use oils and acrylic to a lesser extent). During those ten years I've competed in a number of national and international exhibitions sponsored by watercolor societies such as the American Watercolor Society (AWS), the National Watercolor Society (NWS), the Transparent Watercolor Society of America (TWSA), and so on. When I can, I visit these exhibitions in person and I receive catalogues from most.

It's apparent to me that these societies greatly influence the subject matter and techniques of the artists who compete or who strive to become competitors. There's always a large number of flower paintings, people paintings, and city scapes in these shows. There's also a lot of photo-referenced work. And, there's a lot of ultra-realism. And, there are a lot of imitators of other successful artists from shows past. It's gotten to the point where I can predict what a national/international watercolor exhibition will look like before I even see it.

It seems to me that these societies, which serve as the gatekeepers to what is acceptable in the watercolor world, have very conservative taste. Avant garde work has little to know chance of finding entry into these exhibitions. This reminds me of the Paris Salon, so entrenched in its traditional taste that the newly emerged Impressionists had to find their own venue so their work could be seen.
So, here are some questions for you: Do you think that art societies, with all their influence, help or hinder the progress of art? Do they keep step with the contemporary dialogue in art? I'd love to know your opinion!