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"There's a carnival atmosphere to the art market today, which is more akin to the tulip craze in Holland in the seventeenth century."

Interview: Maxwell Anderson on Turkey, Art Exchange, the Arts District, and the Market (Part 3)

It has been about a year since Maxwell Anderson became the director of the Dallas Museum of Art. We sat down with Anderson just before the end of 2012 for a conversation about the new initiatives he has launched this past year. In part three of the interview, Anderson and I discuss the art market, a collaboration with Turkey, the future of the Arts District, and more.

To read all the parts of the interview, go here

FrontRow: One of the things you have spoken about at length is the issue of museum transparency, and the release of the DMA dashboard contributes towards transparency. I’m curious how transparency relates to the bequest made to the DMA by a number of prominent local collectors. On the one hand, it has been fluid: a lot of the collectors’ work has been able to be used in shows at the museum. At other times, though, there have been questions, such as with the Marguerite Hoffman Rothko painting that was in the Fast Forward show that was sold after it was hung in the museum. So there are those kinds of issues, of how value is affected by museum shows. How does this all work with regards to transparency?

Maxwell Anderson: Well, it’s a new model, this premise. What the model, which I’m fully on board with, advocates is that when these various wonderful people meet their makers, whatever condition their collections are in at that point will be the condition in which the museum receives it. Marguerite has been, I would say, focused on incredible objects by incredible artists, but not at a volume that Howard and Cindy [Rachofsky] have been. They’ve been much more active in acquiring. And so for them it has also meant trading up sometimes. That isn’t natural to an art museum, except MOMA – MOMA does it all the time, they trade up, they sell things and buy things, and some other museums have as well. I think if it’s the museum’s collection [trading up] is difficult because you can make mistakes. Your obligations are different from those of a private collector; you’re dealing with inherited intentions of donors. Whereas, if you’re the collector, you are the donor. The judgment and taste of those three families and their collection instincts are top of the heap. So I don’t look at the changes in the check list and say, “Oh, I’m terrified about that, or I’m going to miss that.” I recognize it is fluid.

Some museums are, I think, beholden to an old-school world view that the bequest is a frozen set of expectations. That’s also completely legitimate, but that’s not the circumstance here because it is work by living artists who are changing and breathing and whose careers rise and fall. That’s distinct from Mrs. [Margaret] McDermott’s collection which is a known entity and formidable. But both models are so important to us for the future, and both models will transform the DMA, yet again, into being internationally relevant in new ways. So I think the way [former DMA director] Jack [Lane] described it in the catalog was “to birth all of this quality and quantity,” and we’re now in a phase of, I would say, upgrading some of the collections. Which is, candidly, very exciting. It’s not a frozen remit that you know is coming and is arrested in time.

FR: Is there a concern about the relationship of the museum to value in regards to the museum’s relationship to the collections? There is a threat that it could be used in a speculative way.

MA: You know, if I didn’t know these people and they’re intentions well, I suppose you could be concerned about that. But we know both of those very well. We know the depth of their commitment to the museum. I have to say there was a time when, yes, a museum show could have market value change. I’m not persuaded that’s the case as much anymore because I think galleries now put on exhibitions that are the equal of – or better than, in some situations – monographic shows of artists. And having been Art Basel this week, I can say museum directors and curators are not the shapers of the market, nor do we aspire to be. We’re witnesses to the market, and that’s fine by me. I really am not deeply interested in the fair market value of works of art. I’m interested in whether they’re good and whether they belong here. If the circumstances of their being here are on loan or as a promise gift or a bequest or an acquisition, it’s not really relevant to our audience. Most people don’t acknowledge on the label that something is there temporarily anyway.

FR: You brought up Art Basel, and I wanted to ask you about that, especially in light of David Hickey’s “resignation from the art world.” It seems like there’s an increasing sense that the whole nature of the way artists’ careers are made, that it becomes part of this industrial cultural complex, or whatever you want to call it, in terms of how galleries, art fairs, and auction houses shape what the art world is. The museum doesn’t have a specific interest in value, but it does have an interest in art history and framing that conversation. Is there a role to be played there for a museum, particularly because it is not directly involved in the market?

MA: There’s a carnival atmosphere to the market today, which is more akin to the tulip craze in Holland in the seventeenth century. You have to wonder how many more bubbles there will be before people realize that tulip crazes aren’t always a wise way to spend your time – and we’re fostering them. The peer group for me is encyclopedic museums that are focused on contemporary art. It’s not the Modern or the SF MOMA, or the Walker or the Guggenheim. It’s LA County, it’s the Met, it’s Chicago [Art Institute], it’s Boston [Museum of Fine Arts]. Those are the peer groups for the DMA.

When I think about what we should be doing in contemporary art, unlike the Whitney, for example, or Indianapolis, it is a totally different strategy here. Here it is a combination of making sure we have the canon as we troll forward, and that we’re fertile and experimental in the appropriate measure — the Karla Blacks of the world, who are not yet in the canon. And that we have the Old Masters of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as we’re still working from the twentieth century – joining the canon, being reified as part of the canon. Those are spaces that are appropriate for us.

But we’re not the Whitney. At the Whitney I had three biennials in which you basically roll the dice on a hundred artists and maybe a handful of them turn out to be major figures in the art world, and the rest are talented people who persist and continue to work and are important, but they’re not shaping their generation. And then you’ve got all these other people who are bright spots at that moment and then maybe it didn’t gel for them. I don’t think we should be in that business. I think we should be less speculative, and since we’re an encyclopedic museum, more looking for enduring achievement in the art of our time that matches up to the achievement of the nineteenth century and earlier.

That’s an easier play, obviously, than being in research and development, which is what contemporary art museums do. But then you run the risk of being sclerotic and boring if you’re not taking some chances. So [DMA contemporary curators] Jeffery [Grove] and Gabe [Ritter] are mining terrain that’s unproven, which is great, but they’re also insuring that the contemporary arts initiative – and the premise of collectors joining us and helping us in thinking about the old masters of the 1980s – are still part of the strategy here.

FR: Another big development during your first year was the partnership with Turkey. How will that play out?

MA: We expect to announce an exhibition in the not too distant future that will come here from Turkey. Once [DMA Senior Islamic Art advisor] Sabiha Al Khemir meets her colleagues — she’s already worked in Istanbul — we’ll talk about what else might come from here in a way of museological collaboration: web-based support for collections management, for example, and e-publishing, which is something Rob Stein has a particular expertise; thinking about conservation programs. We’ll be building expertise that will allow for conservation fellows to join us and travel. Exhibition design is something that’s a peculiarly American phenomenon; once you leave Europe, it’s not as widely disseminated as in other parts of the world. And a lot of these new museums are hungry for experience in registrarial and design services. You really look to the specific areas of interest of a partner country and see what might yield after that. But they’ll all be different. To me, it’s mostly connecting Dallas with the world, giving Dallasites exposure to art from around the world, and building a platform to gain relevance and innovation, that’s provocative, interesting, and is not just about the twelve week experience.

FR: Conservation another one of your media goals. Was that something that, when you came in, was a glaring need, that if you were going to be trying to make these exchanges, you need to have a robust conservation program?

MA: Well, I’ve talked about it with directors here for a long time, and I understand that the train was moving in a particular direction and that was that you had a conservator who was embedded and available and terrific. But I had the same thing at the Whitney. The Whitney had no conservation program, which struck me as challenging there as well, and I set about to change that. To me there’s nothing unusual about it; what’s unusual is not having it. So I think the board was ready for the idea. There was already energy behind the proposition. We needed a strong leader to come in, rally the troops, make the case, secure support from various quarters, and define a plan going forward.

The most exciting parts of it for me are not only working with loan objects, but it’s persuading collectors to give us their art. Because if you don’t have that strong, professional acumen of treating and caring for objects, why would a collector trust you with their legacy? And 80 to 90 percent of what we have in an art museums in this country are from gifts or bequests. So the big play is not how the market is doing or what you can afford to buy, it’s what can you cajole collectors to part with to come to you. Having conservation is absolutely indispensable to that. So I would describe it as an act of responsibility around the collections that we already have, but also an inducement for collection building and relationship building.

FR: It seems like the exchange program is of obvious benefit to younger museums, like the DMA, but some of the old dogs – the Mets, the British Museum — it would seem as natural a line of thinking.

MA: Well, the BM [British Museum] is very involved in this kind of thinking, absolutely. Neil MacGregor has been doing it for years. I saw him in Salzburg ten years ago, and we were standing by this schloss talking about his new moves with Africa. He was working with former colonies of Britain in thinking about exchanges of art. That’s happening. So the BM has been in the forefront of this without any question. But they have a global reputation that’s at the very top of the food chain, which we do not. At the same time they’re freighted with a lot of baggage of colonialism and acquisitions in the 19th century that were not a function of buying things from the market, but bloody well taking them home in military campaigns. That’s a whole other challenge that he faces which I admire him walking up to and I wrote about it in the Art Newspaper a long time ago.

Our challenge is different because we’re an encyclopedic museum with lots of missing chapters. We need to build them. I would say South Asia is part of that, East Asia is part of that. We have this remarkable Indonesian collection, which is what led me to think about establishing a connection with Jakarta. We have this colonial era collection. We should be looking at Indonesia as a cypher for Asia since it was one of the great trading cultures – with China, Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines — cross roads of a sort in Asia almost like no other, 17 thousand islands. So Sabiha’s working on the Islamic tradition in Indonesia. It’s the biggest Muslim country in the world. It seems to me some American art museums should be jumping on that bus, and that’s us. So that’s very exciting. It will thread the two big questions for us: a play in the art of Islam and a play in Asia, in depth that no other museum in the country has as a focus.

FR: It seems like the hiring of the hiring of an Islamic expert was a strategic play. What was the thinking behind that?

MA: You can’t tell the history of the west without telling the history of Islam, starting with the sack [of Constantinople] or the invasions of Malta by the Ottoman Empire. You can’t understand western art without understanding the duality of the east and west. American museums have been very slow to wake up to this, as was the Louvre — it wasn’t until last fall that they opened an Islamic wing. But part of our fresh commitment to that is that the influence of Islam on western intellectual and artistic traditions goes back to Arab authors who were keeping the classics alive, to Arab science with our friends at the Perot. It’s exciting to think about having an astrolabe here and having kids learn about navigation and global positioning systems today and seeing that in the course of the ninth century, tenth centuries AD, people were doing that on a different basis.

It’s a gaping hole in any museum that doesn’t deal with it. My good fortune in attracting, perhaps the top Islamicist available, is simply that the timing was good for her. We had worked together on an exhibition already, and I met her at, in fact, in Salzburg, at that very conference where Neil and I were talking. The other point is to be relevant to a billion people who for whom we weren’t connecting to their heritage and history. The art of Islam is also, it’s like saying “Christian art.” I mean, what does that even mean? Do you collect Christian art? Uh, yeah. [laughs] I mean, Mark Manders? I just wrote a piece for the Dutch pavilion for the Venice Biennale, and he has that incredible piece of this classical figure on a crucifix with these wires tied to him. Is that Christian art? Is it oppositional? Is it him working out demons of his own, secular identity as a Dutchman in the face of inherited tradition? And the Dutch and the world of Islam were one and the same for centuries, in trade, combat. So I don’t think you can pull them apart.

FR: What’s also interesting about it is there are all these implications in Dallas. Dick Cheney lived here for a long time. George W. Bush lives here. It is an oil hub, and there are trade connections to the Islamic world. And then there is the way that some art world players in Qatar and elsewhere have been asserting themselves financially in terms of collecting. How does that play into it?

MA: Sabiha in particular, as a specialist, was the founding director of the biggest Islamic museum in the gulf, in Doha. So she’s completely conversant with the protagonists, both in the royal families there and the professionals. We’ve talked a lot about what our approach is going to be with the gulf. What are we going to do there? I’m not sure we’ve found a good footing yet because we’re not planning on building a satellite DMA in the gulf. We don’t have any magisterial ambitions like that. I think a flexible approach, an exchange of objects and expertise will play out naturally.

To me that play is more about the Arts District as a whole. I’m very actively involved in trying to make a bridge between the Dallas Arts District and the Saadiyat Island development in Abu Dhabi and the West Kowloon cultural development in Hong Kong. To me, those are three peer entities that need to work together. So Rob Stein was just in Hong Kong a couple days ago, with Lars Nittve who is director of Museum Plus [M+] which is in the West Kowloon cultural district. And of course [Dallas Symphony musical director] Jaap [van Zweden] conducts there. So we are going to be, I think, creating a linkage that really is exciting around the Arts District that will touch on the visual and performing arts. My colleagues down Flora Street are ready for it, and we have a mechanism that’s beginning to come into focus.

To me that’s a more natural connection to Saadiyat Island than just working with the Louvre, or the Guggenheim, or fill in the blank. I think it’s the Arts District. It’s one of the reasons I moved here. It’s an incredible possibility and opportunity which we need to plug into global network, and not just be an amenity for us. It needs to be that, but it also needs to be our calling card as a city. It’s what could, in theory, redefine Dallas in the eyes of the world from being a pop culture point of reference to being a high culture point of reference. And that’s pretty exciting.

FR: How would a partnership like that play out?

MA: Well, I can’t comment on it, but I will say we are on the verge of accomplishing that, and I will let you know as soon as I’ve got clarity about it. But it’s my next big focus, really, outside of the building proper. We’ve had so much change in the leadership of Arts District organizations, myself included, that we haven’t had a through line of a logic model and a collaborative approach. But there are so many great things: the Rothko project with the Wyly, is one example. But there are so many we could be doing, both with the Wyly, and with museums in Asia and the gulf.

FR: In terms of greater collaborations and sharing things?

MA: Yeah, because to the point about being a regional museum: to me, this is global in that most basic manifestation, the premise of a cultural district. It’s our calling card. I had the experience of speaking to Governor Perry about it two weeks ago, and he said he was all about it. He was all for it. So between the mayor, who is also excited, and the governor, I think it’s a pretty interesting moment for us.

Image at top: Orpheus Taming Wild Animals (c. A.D. 194), which was acquired by the Dallas Museum of Art in 1999 and returned to Turkey in 2012.