In a piece in Sunday’s Dallas Morning News, Michael Granberry questions the nature of the 2005 contemporary art donation from three prominent Dallas families to the Dallas Museum of Art. To me, it seems like Granberry’s question fired a little right of target.

In Wake of Rothko Sale, Questions Loom Over 2005 Donations’ Impact on Museum’s Future

In a piece in Sunday’s Dallas Morning News, Michael Granberry followed up on his report on the lawsuit filed by Dallas art collector Marguerite Hoffman over the recent Sotheby’s sale of a work of art by Mark Rothko that she had sold in 2007 to a Mexican investor. In the second piece, Granberry poses a number of questions that the recent incident raises about the donation made to the Dallas Museum of Art in 2005 by three prominent Dallas families – the Hoffmans, the Rachofskys, and the Roses – a donation that instantly expanded and raised the prominence of the Dallas Museum of Art’s holdings of contemporary art.

What does “irrevocable gift” mean, Granberry asks, if individual items in the collections can be sold? He brings up the hypothetical situation of the collectors selling all of their collections – or greatly reducing their collections – in advance of the donation to the DMA, which will occur upon the collector’s “departure or death,” according to DMA director Bonnie Pittman who quotes from the agreement in the article.

Pitman dismisses the concern: “You and I both know that’s not going to happen,” she tells Granberry. “These are families who are profoundly committed to the city of Dallas, to making one of the great contemporary art collections in the world.”

To me it seems like Granberry’s question fired a little right of target. The essential question of this ordeal is not whether or not the collectors will unload or greatly dilute their collections in advance of the donation (that would be both out of character and unbearably embarrassing – and as Hoffman’s lawsuit implies, Dallas society loathes embarrassment). The real question is will the agreement create a situation in which the curation of a public museum’s future collections will be shaped by the whims, dips, and cycles of the art market?

In terms of this question, although Hoffman’s Rothko brings new attention to the in-flux nature of the donations, the sale isn’t very significant to the museum’s potential collection. According to a source, the Hoffmans possess a second Rothko of better quality than the one recently auctioned. In this case, unloading the painting made both economic and curatorial sense.

Jeff Koons' Balloon Flower (Magenta)

However, the Rachofsky sale of a balloon sculpture by Jeff Koons (Balloon Flower (Magenta)) two years ago is another matter. The Koons piece was one in an edition of five, and it was both representative and a high quality example of the work from the Neo-Pop Art movement of the 1990s, an art movement for which the DMA possess few if no significant holdings to my knowledge. The sale of the Koons made sense in market terms at the time – fearing the Neo Pop bubble was going to burst with the rest of the economy. But the sale didn’t make sense in terms of creating a representative and significant collection for the Dallas Museum. The DMA is now out a significant work by a major artist. If the collection was being cared to by a museum curator, and not an independent collector, that kind of sale simply wouldn’t have happened.

So there’s the issue: do the terms of the donation agreement create a situation in which the DMA is unable to fulfill its function as a public museum with the more academic and archeological aim of collecting works that, as the DMA’s own mission statement puts it, “contribute to cultural knowledge.” It is this mission, after all, that allows for the museum’s non profit status, which allows it to leverage tax deductions as incentives for major donations in the first place. Or, as Dallas art lawyer Steve Roach points out on his blog, the collector who purchased the Rothko from Hoffman in 2007 essentially went shopping at the DMA during the museum’s Fast Forward exhibition. Does the DMA become art mart?

Mark Rothko, Untitled

It is a peculiar situation for a museum to be in. All museums receive donated collections from collectors who, during their lifetime, see their holdings shift in size and form due to market demands (not to mention personal taste, fads, etc.). But those collections usually arrive on the museum doorstep in final form, and the museum can accept and reject accordingly. The interesting thing here is the foreknowledge that the donation is already in the semi-possession of the museum. It opens a large ownership grey area that simultaneously offers an early boosting of the museum’s prestige, while bolstering the value of the pre-donated collections (a Hoffman, Rachofsky, or Rose piece on the Sotheby’s auction block today is already a museum piece worthy of a premium, as made evident by the listing of the Fast Forward exhibition among the Rothko’s piece’s various credits in the Sotheby’s catalog before the May 12 auction).

Also, what impact does the donation have on current museum purchasing decisions being made within the museum’s curatorial staff today? Why would funds be diverted to purchasing certain works of contemporary art when the assumption is similar examples by artists or of certain movements will eventually arrive with the donated collections?

What if the DMA passed up the opportunity to purchase a piece by Jeff Koons because they assumed they had one in the Rachofsky collection, but then Rachofsky sells the Koons, and now the DMA is left without one? Like Granberry’s total sell-off example, this is a hypothetical situation, but it is a much more likely one, and it presses the point that the donations may compromise the museum’s ability to curate its own contemporary collection. The gift effectively makes the families co-curators with the DMA of their future contemporary collections, which leaves the DMA in a limbo given the enigmatic nature of the work that has been promised them. Will this relationship leave the DMA, like Ms. Hoffman, embarrassed, with its integrity challenged? For better or for worse, the entire incident highlights the suppliant nature of the American museum institution.

Again, like Granberry, I am raising questions here. Answers will require more time and space.