How much is too much? It’s a question that consumers should ask themselves every time they shop, build or step onto a fuel-guzzling jet.
It is also a question that museums might raise before adding works of art to their collections. This does not seem to have happened when the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to accept 220 works by the celebrated — and prolific — American painter Philip Guston (1913-1980) from the personal collection of his daughter, Musa Guston Mayer.
The gift came with a big bright bow: Mayer and her husband, Thomas, are also giving the museum $10 million to establish the Philip Guston Endowment Fund to support Guston scholarship, which will instantly make the museum the world’s center for Guston studies.
Of the 220 donated works, 124 are drawings; 96 are paintings, which is the important number here. Close to 100 paintings by a single painter might seem unremarkable when you first read it, but it is huge — “transformative,” as the press announcement said.
Clearly this was an offer the Met decided it could not refuse even though it is unprecedented in its history to accept so many paintings by a single artist.
The Met in return has promised to have a dozen works by Guston — Abstract Expressionism’s greatest apostate — on view at all times for the next 50 years. This means that the majority of the gift won’t be shown at the Met, or could languish in storage for long periods of time.
The number overshadows every one of Guston’s Abstract Expressionist contemporaries of similar stature in the collection. For example, there are barely 60 paintings — combined — by artists like Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Joan Mitchell. Even the 2014 gift from Leonard A. Lauder of around 80 Cubist works on canvas and paper spanned four artists, not one.
So is this the transformation that the Met really needs?
Accepting so many free Guston paintings flies in the face of the challenge that many museums face right now to redefine their missions in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Practically, and symbolically, it takes up too much of the oxygen in the room. To broaden their collections and audiences, museums should be seeking to avoid, not reinforce, the so-called master narrative that has largely excluded the achievements of women and artists of color.
This is also a period when museums are seen as overstocked treasure houses. Careful consideration should be given to how many artworks museums assume responsibility for. It would seem the last thing the Met needs is an enormous monument to an exemplar of America’s most famous art movement.
The Met’s director emeritus Philippe de Montebello offered some words of caution to Robin Pogrebin, who broke the story of the gift in December. He called the Gustons a “great gift” providing, he said, that “the numbers …….