This week the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao defended an upcoming exhibition of artworks belonging to a museum trustee, Greek businessman Dimitris Daskalopoulos. The director of the Guggenheim Foundation, Richard Armstrong, said the show will be presented "with huge integrity" but there's no way around the fact that the museum has a "huge" conflict of interest in deciding whether to showcase a trustee's work. The art world is a breeding ground for conflicts of interest: art dealers are invariably art collectors, at times competing with their own clients over an artwork (case in point, Larry Gagosian); a former gallery owner goes on to become the new head of a major institution on the West coast (Jeffrey Deitch named new director of MOCA); an art critic is simultaneously the managing director of two commercial art fairs (art critic for the Village Voice Christian Viveros-Fauné, also managing director of "Volta" and "Next" fairs)... The truth is that the art world is small, very knowledge-intensive and poorly paid - can you blame an art critic for supplementing his earnings as a journalist with earnings derived from other art-related activities? And what of the art dealer or museum trustee who is also an art lover and major collector? As the saying goes, in the art world "everyone is in bed with each other."
The question is how to deal with the conflicts of interest rather than trying to avoid each and every one of them all together (sorry but you just can't, granted some conflicts do have to be prevented e.g. art fund managers valuing the art securitized for investment purposes). At the very least, there should be full disclosure of the conflict but depending on the conflict, affirmative checks are likely to be warranted. For example, when Deitch became the new director of MOCA it was on the condition that he divest his collection and though many were appalled by the appointment, I found it brave and possibly genius especially since the institution was in dire need of successful management having been mismanaged for years and nearly going under. In the case of the Guggenheim show, there has been complete transparency and the choice of curator makes it stand in stark contrast to the "Skin Fruit" show at the New Museum (it's hard to think of a more conflicted person to curate "Skin Fruit" than Jeff Koons, whose every period was represented in the collection and who was also a personal friend of Joannou). Another safeguard is the agreement between Daskalopoulos, the Guggenheim and the Whitechapel Gallery restricting the collector from selling any of the works from the exhibitions for a period of three years following their display. The agreement is better than nothing but I don't think it prevents Daskalopouls from realizing the financial gains to be made as a result of the works being exhibited at two major institutions. In three years time the gains may not be as great as if the benefactor had sold a piece during the running of the show but the market price will almost certainly be inflated and Daskalopoulos free to reap the benefits should he want to. Three years seems like an arbitrary number and not nearly long enough but if someone were to propose five it would seem equally arbitrary. No number of years can change the fact that the works will have an institutional "imprimatur" almost certain to increase their market price and you can't (legally) alienate the property indefinitely. There's just simply no complete way around these issues but personally, I'm satisfied the Guggenheim has adequately dealt with the conflict and I don't think it's a strong enough reason to oppose the exhibition.