Museums’ disturbing transformation: relentless commercialization

By Michael Glenwood for The LA Times
Michael Glenwood for The Times

In January, the website IfOnly.com, a San Francisco lifestyle company that organizes and sells so-called curated experiences, began to offer exclusive, one-on-one private tours of a socially connected photography collector’s Georgian mansion in Pacific Heights.

About a third of the collection’s roughly 300 photographs had been featured as a 2012 exhibition at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. The company sales pitch touts the museum’s imprimatur.

The price of a 90-minute private tour: $3,500 and up.

A Wall Street Journal tech writer was frank in describing the company’s general marketing plan: “[You] get to do some shoulder-rubbing with the jet-setter of your choice if you cough up the dough.” Art museum pedigree adds luster.

Vernon Fisher exhibit
Mark Moore Gallery in Culver City just had a Vernon Fisher exhibition curated by Hugh Davies of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sand Diego. Davies co-organized Fisher’s 1989 survey at his museum. (Jonah Olson / Mark Moore Gallery)


So does another, far more troubling fact: The businessman-collector is also a De Young trustee.

The link between the art museum and IfOnly is emblematic of a disturbing transformation, which has been unfolding over a generation: Museums are being relentlessly commercialized.

For-profit art dealers are organizing shows for nonprofit museums. Museum professionals are organizing shows for commercial art fairs and galleries. Museum collections are being monetized, rented out for profit to other museums and private corporations. Corporations are co-organizing museum shows.

Nonprofit status subsidizes museums through the public tax code. The status was invented more than a century ago to foster diversity of independent thought, free from the narrow economic demands of business or the ideological commands of government. Today, that independence is being corrupted as the wall separating art museums from business activities is crumbling.

In fact, so commonplace is the boundary-blurring that few any longer notice. A new normal is in the making.

Take the IfOnly “curated experience.” The art, together with the town house, belongs to Trevor Traina, the Internet start-up entrepreneur behind the dot-com.

Not only is Traina on the De Young Museum’s board, his mother, socialite and philanthropist Dede Wilsey, is its powerful longtime president. She held the position when her son’s art collection was put on the exhibition schedule…

By Christopher Knight – Copyright 2015 LA Times

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