Museums and Art Fairs: The Inside Story

Spring in San Francisco brings with it a season of art fairs, including artMRKT whose opening night preview reception this Thursday, May 16 benefits the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s newly created New Acquisitions Fund. Featuring 70 galleries from around the globe, artMRKT provides a unique opportunity for museum professionals and art enthusiasts to gather, discuss, and view the world’s premier contemporary and modern art. This year, artMRKT includes a series of special lectures presented by several of our own curators, including Emma Acker, assistant curator of American art. We sat down with Ms. Acker to discuss the relationship between art fairs and museums, such as the de Young and the Legion of Honor.

Assistant curator of American art, Emma Acker

Emma Acker, assistant curator of American art

What is the role of contemporary art in a general museum such as the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco?

Contemporary art plays an important role in an encyclopedic museum such as our own by rounding out a narrative survey of the history of art, and exposing our audiences to more recent developments in the visual arts.

Like the art of the past, which was also once “contemporary,” today’s art both reflects and shapes the moment in which it is produced. By addressing issues and ideas that may be particularly relevant or familiar to our audiences—or may expand and enrich their knowledge and range of experiences—the contemporary art we display should challenge and inspire our viewers.

Gallery 16 at the de Young

Gallery 16 at the de Young

The Fine Arts Museums play an active role in supporting contemporary art and artists through acquisitions and exhibitions, and through ongoing engagement with contemporary artists, galleries, and collectors. Furthermore, our monthly Artist-in-Residence program in the Kimball Education gallery at the de Young Museum allows contemporary artists to share their ideas, works in progress, collaborative projects, and finished artworks with museum visitors and community members.

Gallery 14 at the de Young

Gallery 14 at the de Young

How does contemporary art inform our understanding of art history as it’s presented in the halls of a museum?

Given the breadth and depth of our holdings across diverse cultures and historical periods, the Fine Arts Museums are in a particularly strong position to foster a dialogue between the art of the present and that of the past, and to highlight the continued resonance and relevance of visual and conceptual themes across time.

These kinds of cross-disciplinary or cross-temporal conversations can found in Gallery 25, which features predominately 19th-century American trompe l’oeil still lifes. Currently on view in the center of this gallery is a glass still life by contemporary artist Beth Lipman, recently acquired at an art fair. Comprising more than 66 individual blown-glass pieces, Lipman’s jet-black, life-size assemblage of still-life elements on a table is a commentary on the same Northern European vanitas conventions from which the American paintings in the gallery derive. The chaotic profusion of goods in Lipman’s sculpture addresses modern overconsumption, materialism, and desire, linking them to the Baroque extravagance from which the theme originated.

Beth Lipman's Candlesticks, Books, Flowers and Fruit on view in Gallery 25

Beth Lipman (American, b. 1971). Candlesticks, Books, Flowers and Fruit, 2010. Blown glass and painted wood. Foundation purchase, George and Dorothy Saxe Endowment Fund and Gift of Dorothy R. Saxe in memory of John E. Buchanan, Jr. 2012.3

When collecting contemporary art, what are some of the criteria you use to make your selections?

As an institution with 10 curatorial departments with collections from a range of cultures, time periods, and media, we must make a particularly strong case for acquiring work made in more recent decades. In addition to assessing its aesthetic quality, we consider the ways in which a contemporary work may conceptually or visually enhance our existing holdings, and the role it might play in the narrative survey of art history that we present to our audiences.

Gallery 27a at the de Young

Gallery 27a at the de Young

What challenges come with collecting contemporary art?

Without the benefit of historical hindsight, it can be difficult for curators and museums to assess the enduring significance of a contemporary art movement or style, or the longevity of an artist’s reputation. Aesthetic judgments are inherently subjective, and are also subject to the prevailing cultural trends of a given period. Contemporary art that is institutionally validated today may fall out of favor tomorrow, while conversely, art that is ignored by critics and the public during an artist’s lifetime may be celebrated after his or her death.

Works of art from the 20th and 21st centuries incorporate a broad range of materials—many of which can be purposefully ephemeral, or unstable, such as the urban detritus used by Beat-era artists such as Bruce Conner—and pose particular challenges for conservators and collectors of modern and contemporary art.

Bruce Conner's Untitled (1954)

Bruce Conner (American, 1933–2008). Untitled, 1954. Oil and vermiculite on canvas, fabric. Gift of Louis Mulder. 1996.121

In the case of new media artists like Nam June Paik, museums and collectors must also make arrangements to preserve or transfer the content of works whose technologies are in danger of becoming obsolete.

How have art fairs changed the way collectors, curators, and museums encounter emerging and contemporary art?

By bringing together diverse works of art from galleries across the world and showcasing them under one roof, art fairs expose collectors, curators, and interested members of the public to a wide range of artists and aesthetic trends and make contemporary art more accessible to the public.

Art fairs offer museum professionals the advantage of viewing—and comparing and contrasting—a variety of artworks in one setting, and of forging connections with dealers. Art fairs also provide a social and communal setting for artists, collectors, curators, and critics to exchange ideas and to form new professional networks that can nurture the creation and exhibition of contemporary art.

artMRKT 2012

artMRKT 2012

Hear more from Ms. Acker when she presents Between Nature and Abstraction: Richard Diebenkorn, the Berkeley Years a discussion hosted by artMRKT on Sunday, May 19 at 4pm.

A Preview Pass to artMRKT is available for purchase online and grants you access to the opening night festivities in support of the de Young and the Legion of Honor, and all access to the fair throughout the weekend.