Critic's Notebook: MOCA shills for Christie's
Christie's, the international auction house with 53 offices in 32 countries, has rented out galleries in the Museum of Contemporary Art to display movie star memorabilia for an upcoming sale. Five thousand tickets for the preview, beginning Thursday, sold out fast at $20 a pop. If you missed out, don't worry, just dig deep: "Additional premium tickets now available for purchase –- Friday and Saturday nights only. Admission: $50."
I know that because I read it on Christie's website. And I went to Christie's website because it's promoted at the top of MOCA's homepage, via a link extolling "THE COLLECTION OF ELIZABETH TAYLOR" (emphasis the museum's). The sale promo is just below the banner for MOCA's current Pacific Standard Time exhibition.
That might explain why I got an interview request the other day from a journalist wanting to talk about a possible trend of art museums organizing celebrity shows, starting with this one. That's not what's happening here, of course. The Christie's deal is just its usual commercial enterprise, with the auction house doing what auction houses do and MOCA doing what art museums don't do -- acting as a shill, publicist and partner for a business. (The museum gets a cut of the preview gate.) But the reporter can be forgiven for being confused; in this event a general audience won't know the difference between a commercial sale and a MOCA show.
Jeffrey Deitch, the art dealer who is now MOCA's director, told The Times, “Rental agreements are routine, and this one provides more benefits to the public and to MOCA.” In negotiating the cheesy business arrangement with Christie's, though, Deitch got played. He should have held out for a cut on the sale of Liz's famous 33-carat Burton diamond, expected to ring up between $2.5 and $3.5 million. The only thing worse than selling out is selling out cheap.
-- Christopher Knight
Photo: Thomas Gainsborough, "Portrait of James Christie" (detail), 1778, oil on canvas; Credit: J. Paul Getty Museum