Monday, March 9, 2009

Ethical Issues for the Collector as Critic

As I wrote up our recent reviews of photography at the New York art fairs last week, I started thinking about a delicate topic. It all started with Vera Lutter’s Samar Hussein, a portfolio of bold color flowers that are a new direction for her work. In our post, we mentioned this work and generally praised what it had to offer. We also mentioned that we currently own a small camera obscura work by Lutter, which can be found on our collection site (here). Now we happen to be flower collectors, so Samar Hussein fits nicely into one of the other existing genres in our collection, and would therefore explain why we might find value in this new effort. But I started to think: I wonder if anyone out there thinks we like the new work just because we own one of the older pieces? A reasonable (and more skeptical) observer might just as well conclude that our goal was to pump up her work to increase the value of our existing holdings.

So the larger question that is then raised is: how do the works we own (and in which we have a financial interest) influence the things we write about? What are the standards that we have for how we will handle real or perceived conflicts of interest? I think our approach will combine increased awareness of these ethical questions, broader disclosure of how our holdings might be perceived to affect our opinions, and more vigilant avoidance of circumstances where the conflicts are real and meaningful.

First and foremost, we are collectors, and in general, we purchase the art that moves us; our writing on this site is a byproduct of that activity. We are not art speculators, but we do understand that our collection may increase in value over the years, that our children may not have the same interests that we do, and that perhaps these works will someday come back into the market or enter museums. But our primary goal is not the increase in the value of the “portfolio”, it is the enjoyment of the art itself.

So given that we own a number of Imogen Cunninghams, how can we successfully share our passion for her work with our readers without having the appearance of simply trying to inflate the value of our investment? I think the answer lies in that fact that when these conflicts arise, we need the trust of our audience, and I think we earn that trust by doing our best to explicitly outline our intentions when there is the potential for self serving behavior.

So in the spirit of full disclosure, we’ve tried to think through how our position as collectors might influence our activities with various constituents and how we write about them:

Museums: We are not currently “affiliated” with any museums large or small beyond being supporting members of quite a few. We are not trustees, or members of accessions committees, or large donors. We do have friends among the curatorial staff of many institutions and like to support them in their efforts. But I don’t believe that any of these relationships preclude us from being honest about the quality of exhibitions and shows we view in their institutions.

Auctions: We have in the past and will likely in the future continue to purchase at auction, from a wide variety of houses all over the world. When we preview an auction, we often highlight lots that we think are interesting. As an example, we own two Mapplethorpe flowers, and are interested to find others we like, and so may highlight other Mapplethorpe flowers that are found in auctions, whether we plan to bid or not. In this case, we are sharing our excitement for this artist, rather than trying to influence other collectors to buy Mapplethorpes (and thereby drive up prices). Since we are still buyers for his work, rising prices are both good and bad for us; good in the sense that the value of our existing works goes up, bad in that it becomes harder for us to acquire others.

In general, it seems actually to be counterproductive (in a financial sense) to tell our readers what we’re interested in prior to the auctions, as perhaps we will influence others to be bidders on the same lots we want (thereby driving up the ultimate price we would pay as winners). To date, however, we not observed that our selections have moved the needle at all (up or down) on lots we have highlighted. On the sell side, in the event we are consignors to an auction, we will refrain from discussing the lots that we have up for sale in any way (positive or negative). Overall, given that our entire collection is online, readers can always see what we own and consider how our holdings might be influencing our impressions of certain lots, and most importantly, we will do our best to be upfront with our disclosures.

Galleries: We have friendly relations with a large number of galleries all over the world. It is altogether possible that a string of good reviews by us could theoretically make it easier to get lower prices or larger discounts as we buy photographs in the future; a string of less than glowing reviews might make that flexibility disappear. I think however that the reality is that prices and “access” are what they are, and are unlikely to be meaningfully affected by our writings in either direction. So I am confident we can remain objective and truthful in our opinions about what we see in gallery shows. Again, we didn’t like the recent Siskind show at Silverstein because we want our Siskinds to be more valuable or we want Bruce to give us a discount in the future; we liked it because it was a terrific show that highlighted some under appreciated work of a master photographer.

Books: The only way that our book reviews impact anything is when they feed back into the gallery or auction worlds, via positive or negative reviews of artists who are either in our collection or who might be in the future. From time to time, we also receive free books from galleries, publishers or artists, but this doesn’t impact what we review or how we review them. We do try to disclose when we have received a free book to ensure our readers have the full story.

Perhaps many of you will find this post to be a “tempest in a teapot”, an exaggeration of effects that aren’t very large or important. But in the Wild West of the Internet, where there is a lot of back scratching and self promotion, and where people often wear multiple conflicting hats simultaneously, I want to ensure that our readers know that we are fully aware of these issues, are trying to approach them as objectively as possible, and welcome direct and loud feedback if even a hint of potential conflict is making you wonder about our intentions. As always, if we've missed something important or you have other thoughts and opinions, your comments and/or email on this topic are welcome.

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