As many will have read and seen, the allegations made against the MSK and its presentation of the Russian avant-garde art from the Dieleghem Foundation within the permanent collection have taken on large proportions with claims backed until now with little verifiable evidence. Why has the attack on the MSK Ghent museum been disproportionate, and why is the reaction of the art market nervous?
As many will have read and seen, the allegations made against the MSK and its presentation of the Russian avant-garde art from the Dieleghem Foundation within the permanent collection have taken on large proportions with claims backed until now with little verifiable evidence. Why has the attack on the MSK Ghent museum been disproportionate, and why is the reaction of the art market nervous? How can the pace of the news cycle dictate the dynamics in the arts and beyond, reaching into the financial world and international politics? The facts will come out over time and with more research; it would be useful however to reflect on some of the implications of what has been happening, which have significance not only for the MSK but also for other museums, museum visitors and those who care about art. ArtDependence spoke with several sources around the MSK Ghent to find the real answers to these questions and the true facts behind the story.
It is helpful to look briefly at two details raised in the media in the last weeks to illustrate the difficulties the museum has faced. In an article published by The Art Newspaper, it was claimed that the MSK had been forced to withdraw all the contested works overnight because of the assertions that the newspaper was about to publish. In a situation like this, there are so many elements to be considered, and many voices involved to be taken into account before a decision is made, that the process can often be slow and protracted.
The actual reason for the withdrawal of the works appears to have been the negative publicity over a period of time had made it impossible to look at the work in an objective way at the museum, and it was felt, by those in the MSK and by others beyond the museum, that this could not be in the interest of the public and the understanding of the works. While necessary, the taking down of the pictures, even if temporary, disappointed many as it has withdrawn works that are fascinating for a variety of reasons. In retrospect, the decision once made was also probably useful for the independent commission to have ready access to the works and to allow the material-technical analysis, which will date the works, to happen without leaving gaps on the walls that would certainly have aroused further speculation.
Another detail that has more far reaching implications concerns the role of the market. The majority of signatories, although not all, to the ‘open letter’ which ostensibly triggered this affair were dealers in Russian avant-garde art, and the interests of the market have played a significant, if still opaque, role in the development of the matter until now. The ambiguity here is usefully illustrated in the rather curious explanation offered by a dealer who makes a point of denying - in a letter published later - that he had ever said that the works were fake. The process has been that those with a financial interest in the story and in controlling the art market have acted through rumor and innuendo, evidently hoping that the media would not be thorough, while dealers and collectors remain in the background, washing their hands of any responsibility. This is likely frustrating for the museum as there is, until now, very little that is substantive in the actual claims regarding the work to engage with in an objective way.
This has several consequences for the museum. If they are to act responsibly, they must again study the material, and their process in detail to be reassured that the decisions made until now have been reliable and based on persuasive evidence. This takes time and necessarily also involves examining any new evidence relevant to the case. Meanwhile, the timescale dictated by the news cycle is not easily compatible. If they are to be responsible, the museum cannot immediately publish their first and untested impressions, which may only add a further level of confusion. While they have attempted to keep up with the arising claims, the MSK is said to be increasingly confident that their methodical process will produce results that when seen as a whole and in context, will carry forward the study of some important avant-garde works. It may also touch on a history behind the accusations that so far has not been examined.
Russian avant-garde art display in Ghent museum ©MSK Ghent
The second aspect that needs to be addressed is the necessity for museums to find a way to understand and deal more effectively with market-driven interests and influence. They can certainly deal with the interests of collectors who loan works as the museum has, of course, long experience in these negotiations and extensive legal advice and support throughout the process. The difficulties come when claims of the market and of those whose interests are very different from the principles and practice of the museum, or whose motives only tangentially concern art. This is not a new phenomenon but the scale has changed, the sums of money involved have changed, the pressure of the news cycle and the need for sensation have changed, and all of this creates new challenges that quite evidently require resources far beyond the present possibilities of most museums, as well as affecting the art and the great they represent. Museums, and not only the MSK, need better protection, not from the consequences of potential mistakes but from the pressures applied by market forces far beyond their control or influence.
This touches everybody. The growing influence of the market affects even academic research. There are, as there have always been, differing interpretations put forward by academics. These can often be passionate and argued with conviction, however the debates that ensue can have influence beyond small scientific journals and the lecture hall. While it is inevitable that there should be disagreement when so much depends on interpretation and opinion, the involvement of the market raises the stakes and the sometimes astronomical sums of money that are in play—the last record sale of a Da Vinci painting is just one example of many—can also shift academic study, debate and opinion into the realm of finance and of politics in which the pressures go beyond threats to reputation and tenure. In the last years, several museums showing Russian avant-garde art have had to engage in this debate and then take the time needed to continue their research. The Ludwig Museum in Germany is just one example who now speaks openly about the case regarding works acquired some time ago. ArtDependence looks ahead to more definitive attribution of facts, research and substantiation surrounding this debate. To be continued…
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