Friday, July 21, 2006


Gary Tinterow on the Divine Right of Curators

At a press breakfast before a briefing held at the Metropolitan Museum this week for its upcoming high-rent loan show of French 19th- and early 20th-century masterpieces, I got into a discussion about the Met's deaccessioning practices with Gary Tinterow, curator in charge of 19th century, modern and contemporary art. He made a point of revisiting that subject with me after the briefing. I publish those comments here, but (except for a brief closing salvo) I will reserve until next week my comments on his comments.

Here's what Tinterow told my digital voice recorder:

What journalists have to understand is that curators and administrators make decisions about the formation of the collection every day. We’re the gatekeepers, going in, and we’re the gatekeepers coming out. When something gets here, it’s because a curator has made a decision to admit this work. When something leaves, it’s because the curator has made a decision for it to leave.

So the notion that there is some purity to a collection, that some greater force has brought works of art into a museum and the curators therefore are not the appropriate voice to determine the shape of the collection is to ignore how collections are formed to begin with.

Museums have actually acquired back works that they sold. What you assume is that we have unlimited storage and unlimited money, and neither is the case. Not only do opportunities change, but tastes change. And what didn’t make sense in 1900 might make sense in the year 2000. No one has a crystal ball and you are always making the collection from the perspective of today.

Something can be sold [from the museum], can be bought by a collector and can be regiven [to the same museum] in 50 years. So we don’t have the sense of finite opportunity. The collections are organic.

The most precious thing really is not money. The most precious thing is space. And that is our most severely restricted resource: it’s space, both for exhibitions and for storage. And that’s how we have to manage the collections.

The "most precious thing" is SPACE? I had always thought it was the art.

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