Art Talk: What Happens When the Art Dealer Steals the Show

Friday, December 13, 2013

Andy Warhol. Ileana Sonnabend, 1973. (Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art)

Museums usually mount exhibits featuring one artist. Or a period in history. Or an art movement. But for the first time in its history, the Museum of Modern Art is devoting an exhibition to an art dealer. 

Ileana Sonnabend ran a famous gallery in New York and Paris starting in the 1960s. And she was the subject of a painting by pop artist Andy Warhol.

WNYC’s art critic Deborah Solomon thinks it's about time. In this interview, she explains that art dealers tend to be demonized as ruthless salespeople, but that's a misconception. Solomon was bothered that Glenn Lowry, the director of MoMA, seemed a bit defensive when she asked him during the press preview whether this is a first show on an art dealer for the museum.

"I don't... you know, I don't have the full history. I don't know," said Lowry. "If you are asking the question, does it raise a concern for me to devote an exhibit to an art dealer, the answer is in these rooms. I think it makes a lot of sense, under the right circumstances.

Solomon then confirmed with the curator of the show, Ann Temkin, that this is indeed the first art dealer show for MoMA.

"There is nothing embarrassing about devoting a show to an art dealer," argued Solomon. "People are always so afraid to let commerce into the story of art. But it's essential."

What do you think? Should museums devote shows to art dealers? Why or why not? Leave your comment below.

Robert Rauschenberg's "Canyon," from 1959, was donated to MoMA by Sonnabend's family, and that triggered the museum to do a show on the art dealer. (Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art)


Deborah Solomon

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Comments [8]

Sally Patt from New York

Illeana Sonnabend was one of the great dealers of our time who had an "eye" for discovering artists, and was willing to take a chance on them financially and otherwise. Why not pay tribute to this most courageous art dealer.

Dec. 13 2013 10:48 AM
Deborah Solomon from Art critic, WNYC

Hey everyone, Thanks for your PASSIONATE comments.

Some of you -- David Nadvorney, Ric Kallaher -- seem outright opposed to devoting an exhibition to an art dealer, ever. And I understand your reservations. But what if the dealer, as Rachel Klein calmly points out, is a historical figure who helped nurture new art and shape movements? I think that art dealers UNFAIRLY get written out of the story of art, and some of them are true visionaries.

Moreover, I would like to point out that every art dealer in this city is performing -- at least partly -- a public service by providing a glimpse of art for free.

Dec. 13 2013 09:25 AM
David Nadvorney from New York City

Deborah Solomon defends the (to me) utterly revolting idea of mounting a show dedicated to an art dealer, with the reminder that commerce is integral to art. Then she ends the discussion with the tidbit that the show was quid pro quo for the donation of a painting that Sonnabend's estate couldn't legally keep in the stream of commerce. How about a show dedicated to the untold numbers of great artists that commerce stifled? Isn't the re-naming of the New York State Theater bad enough? Do we now have to put up with the purchasing of exhibitions in museums?

Dec. 13 2013 09:06 AM

The Sonnabend show at the Met is just a more public example of 'business as normal' in the art world. Galleries always have had extensive relationships with museums and other institutions, whether stated or not. There is definitely a conflict of interest, but there is nothing new with that: this is how the art business works, and probably how most business in general works for that matter.

Dec. 13 2013 09:04 AM
rachel klein from nyc

Hi Deborah-

I think the issue is the fact that our post-modern notion of "art dealer" is tantamount to the notion of "rock star." "Art dealer" is a bothersome combo. However, let's think back to the Steins and even Alfred Stieglitz. They consulted with artists, they shaped movements, they bought and sold art (Stieglitz had a gallery) AND their collections have been mounted in museums (Stieglitz/O'Keeffe is up right now at Chrystal Bridges - Steins at the MET last year). No one complained that they were "art dealers" because they were viewed as advisors and experts - not dealers. In fact, they were dealing.

I don't have a problem with it. Its important to see what someone like Ileana Sonnabend brought to the table and it is great to see it together.

Dec. 13 2013 09:00 AM
lovey Marino from nyc/mexico

In my humble opinion Thomas Ammann the art dealer is in this category. Just like the great club owners who gave the artist's a venue, these two incredible people, and there are the only a few, had a gift beyond capitalism. They supported and singled out the greatest artists of our time. It can be argued other art dealers are strictly businessman.

Dec. 13 2013 08:52 AM
Ric Kallaher from Montauk, NY

No, NO and NO!!! To my understanding, Art Museums are for displaying the work of Artists. Gallerists are not artists. No matter how interested or interesting they may be, they deal in the Arts BUSINESS. Perhaps I'm being too idealistic, but how can this not be a conflict of interest? This seems to me as continuation of the blurring of lines and the increased influence of collectors of who back shows in order to up the value of their holdings and reap profits.

Dec. 13 2013 08:47 AM
scott davis from rockland, maine

RE: Sonnebend gift to MOMA

The "gift" was the result of negotiations with the IRS
having to do with inheritance taxes......

Of course it could have gone to another museum.........

Whether or not is a worthy idea for an exhibition............depends on one's point of view.........

Dec. 13 2013 06:53 AM

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