Saturday 7 March 2020

And the Dog Goes...

Beatrix Ruf was appointed as the director of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in 2014.  She resigned from this position quite abruptly in 2017 after allegations arose in the press that the supervisory board accused her of exploiting her strong ties with galleries and collectors for her own gain, with her private art consultancy firm turning over a healthy profit during the years of her directorship.

A year later she was cleared of all allegations and I don't really want to pass judgement on the dealings of Ruf, nor how they were dealt with. Politics and connections have always been a large part of the proceedings in the art world, so whether she did something right or wrong is merely a question of where the tipping point lies in your personal worldview.

What I do want to talk about is how the supervisory board acted as if this came as somewhat of a surprise after investigating the books, while her interest in private collectors and galleries over public institutions could clearly be seen in the programming of the museum during her directorship.

Ruf resigned on October 17th 2017 and the exhibition 'Social Synthetic' opened six months prior. This exhibition was presented in the museum's own words as 'the first survey of the American artist Seth Price. The show is a comprehensive overview of his artistic career so far, encompassing more than 140 works made since 2000'.
Expected in such a survey exhibition is a return of a number of key pieces from an artist's oeuvre to a single place, so that the work can once again be seen as a whole. This often requires a number of loans from several museums, which have wisely acquired representative works of the noteworthy artists in the preceding years.
For example, the private Voorlinden Museum held survey exhibitions of Ellsworth Kelly and Wayne Thibaud in 2016 and 2018. The Kelly exhibition had 37 works on view. 34 of those originated from public collections and 3 were on loan from private collectors. The exhibition of Thibaud had 26 paintings from private collections, 13 paintings from public collections and an additional 16 paintings relating in some way to Thibaud's estate.
This is in stark contrast with the work presented at the show of Seth Price at the Stedelijk Museum. The exhibition later traveled to the Museum Brandhorst in Munich and there are 377 works listed in the picture credits of the catalogue that accompanied both exhibitions. Of those 377 works there are only eleven that hail from a public collection and seven of those eleven works are owned by the Museum Brandhorst itself. This leaves a meager four works from public collections that had no hand in organising the exhibition. These numbers are somewhat alleviated by the works on loan from private collections, of which there were 84. The remaining 282 works were either owned by the artist or one of the galleries representing him and entail a disproportionate 74.8% of the total number of documented works.

By itself this is already a strong indication that Ruf's attachment lay primarily with the galleries, followed by the private collectors, while a working relationship with her fellow public institutions can be seen as a necessary formality.
If I may conjure some more, keeping in mind that most of Seth Price's work is still in his or his galleries' possession, I find it peculiar that the exhibition that followed Price at the Stedelijk Museum was one of a large collection that Thomas Borgmann 'gifted' to the museum in exchange for 1.5 million euro's. A curious fact about Thomas Borgmann is that between 1993 and 1995 he ran a gallery together with Gisela Capitain, who at the time of these exhibitions still represented not only many of the artists in Borgmann's collection, but also a certain Seth Price. Additionally, Capitain jointly operated a gallery in Berlin named Capitain Petzel, with Petzel representing Price in his hometown of New York since 2006.
All of this information could simply be found in press releases and other public documents issued by the Stedelijk Museum and while I'm not implying any of these facts have any necessary relationship to one another, those relationships are certainly there if you want to see them.

If one then also possesses the knowledge that Ruf retained a position in an art consultancy firm, which the supervisory board has known of since the start of her tenure, then it isn't too difficult or far-fetched to spot the possibility of conflicting interests. Again, Ruf was exonerated two years after and I don't want to pass any judgement here, but I'm nevertheless surprised that it took the watchful eye of the supervisory board a whole three years to decide they should scream blue murder.