Perspectives

$110.5 M. Basquiat Masterpiece Will Travel to Seattle, the Latest Stop on a Tour Painfully Exemplifying Problems of the Present Moment

The untitled Basquiat, from 1982.

YUSAKU MAEZAWA COLLECTION, © 2018 THE ESTATE OF JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT/ADAGP, PARIS/ARS

After it completes a six-week stint at the Brooklyn Museum this Sunday, the untitled 1982 Jean-Michel Basquiat skull painting that sold to Japanese collector Yusaku Maezawa for $110.5 million last May at Sotheby’s will head to the Seattle Art Museum, where it will be on view for nearly five months, from March 21 through August 13.

The painting’s forthcoming residency, announced today by the Seattle Art Museum, is the second stop on an international circuit that Maezawa is sponsoring. The billionaire said in a statement, “Distance should neither restrain nor limit us. It was with this belief and the desire to bring people around the world one step closer to this masterpiece that I announced the world tour of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled.”

Left unsaid in that quotation is that the painting’s string of appearances at museums is also likely boosting its prestige and notoriety, potentially increasing its sale price should Maezawa ever decide to part with it. (He has said it will eventually be displayed at a private museum that he is building in Tokyo.) After its Seattle stay, the painting will head to Europe; dates and locations for that leg of the tour have not yet been released.

It is hard to begrudge a museum agreeing to show what is undeniably a masterpiece—the painting is drawing crowds, and hopefully minting more than a few new Basquiat fans—and one never wants to sound churlish, but it has to be said that such temporary shows of the wealthy’s latest purchases feel depressingly of the moment, at once a sign of today’s vicious income inequality and the precarious state of many publicly funded institutions.

Neither the Brooklyn Museum nor the Seattle Art Museum owns a Basquiat painting, which are now so expensive that they are beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest institutions—unless a generous benefactor donates one. Instead, the museum-going public is now being treated to shows of expensively purchased artworks that can’t help but read as celebrations of big spending. As the New York Times reported in 2014, art museums in Oregon have even developed a cottage industry by way of showing works hot off the auction block so that their new owners can avoid paying certain taxes.

There are, to be sure, conflict-of-interest questions to be raised about a collector sponsoring a show of his or her own work at a museum, as Maezawa has done. (Similarly, the New Museum in New York was rightfully scrutinized in 2009 when it announced it would show the collection of Dakis Joannou, who is a trustee.) But it strikes me as even more pressing to think about the effect that such shows have on the ways that people view museums.

There is no mention in the Seattle Art Museum’s press release of the $110.5 million price tag on the Basquiat, but I imagine few visitors will be under any illusions about how the painting came to be on display. (As Linda Yablonsky has noted, the Brooklyn Museum also avoided the topic of the painting’s big price.) The Basquiat’s post-auction tour is emphasizing the idea of museums as stores of financial value—loci for flows of money—rather than as havens for things that are a great deal more interesting than cash, like history, scholarship, stewardship, and conservation in all their myriad forms.

The tour also suggests that museum halls are simply available to rent for anyone with the right amount of money.

And it invites some odd queries: Just how good—or expensive—does an artwork have to be to merit a one-work show? What happens when, some day soon, a collector spends $100 million on a lesser artwork and comes knocking on museum doors, generously offering to loan the latest headline-grabbing sale? Museums, we know, have their criteria, but these arrangements make them blurrier. They muddy the waters.

All around the United States, and abroad, there are signs of museums moving to monetize their collections, with the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and the La Salle University Art Museum in Philadelphia aiming to sell off works, and this feels like one more instance of dollar signs dominating longer-term thinking.

All of that said, the Brooklyn Museum’s director, Anne Pasternak, has ably made her case for why showing the Basquiat work is important and worthwhile, and it has been an exciting event for Brooklyn. It no doubt will be for Seattle as well. But I am hoping for the day when museums move to pull out all the stops and strive to bring in huge crowds for single-work, or tightly focused, shows of pieces that have not recently sold for nine figures—even pieces that simply reside in their own collections, particularly when they seem urgently to require spotlighting. (It’s essential to say that the Brooklyn Museum did that just last year with its collection show “The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America,” a collaboration with the Equal Justice Initiative.)

As it happens, the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts, provided one fine example in the fall of 2016 when it worked with the guest curator Chaédria LaBouvier to present a show and programming around another Basquiat, a modestly sized piece from a private collection titled The Death of Michael Stewart (1983), named for the artist who was killed by New York police officers the year it was made.

For the moment, though, in this traveling single-work affair, we are being presented with the Basquiat show that our era affords us. And, given the alternative—no Basquiat show—I personally plan to enjoy the heck out of Maezawa’s acquisition while it remains in Brooklyn for the next few days, all the while dreaming of more important shows that could be done, as well as saner tax regimes.

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