I recently had the good fortune to spend a quiet few moments alone with a Picasso, a Kandinsky and a Chagall in a small room in midtown Manhattan, in the calm before the storm of Christie’s recent Post-War and Contemporary Art sale. Turning the gallery corner, I stumbled upon Brancusi’s “Sleeping Muse,” which would sell for $57.4 million a few days later and set a record high for the artist at auction. I was there to meet Allison Whiting, Christie’s director of Museum Services, and Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, for a wide-ranging discussion about, among other subjects, the current state of the art world and how their institutions work together.
Anne, it has been nearly two years since you became director of the Brooklyn Museum. What has surprised you about the role?
Anne Pasternak: What has surprised me most is that I fell in love with the institution as quickly as I did. I left a job that I was at for 21 years and that I truly loved. It was a difficult decision, and coming into a new entity, especially as a 52-year-old woman, was not easy. However, it didn’t take long before I felt a deep sense of purpose.
Allison, your role at Christie’s is unique in that you primarily work with nonprofit institutions.
Allison Whiting: I have the best job at Christie’s – I get paid to go to museums for a living. Part of my time is spent getting to know the institutions, curators and development directors and understanding their priorities. We open doors for institutions by connecting them with other industry players. Increasingly, collectors and boards are attending art fairs around the globe. We have offices worldwide and know who the collectors are in the places where those fairs and other art events are happening. We provide auctioneers and speakers for fundraiser galas and open up collectors’ homes for showings.
I also work with museums on deaccessioning – the process by which they decide they no longer need certain works in their collections. Besides buying, museums do a large amount of selling at auction. We have a department devoted to working with institutions on their needs during this process.
How do Christie’s and the Brooklyn Museum work together?
AW: Christie’s has a broad relationship with the Brooklyn Museum. For example, we have done a lot of buying and selling with the museum. We are also currently sponsoring the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition and have sponsored several other shows. When museum patrons and staff members need anything in the art world, they will call and ask, “You may not do this, but do you know someone who does?” We like to be a facilitator and connector.
AP: There’s also a scholarship and expertise aspect to our relationship. We are both in the role of supporting mission and purpose related to art and antiquities. We are focused on engaging people in the art that we are passionate about.
The gender gap exists, even in the art world, which is known for inclusivity. It has been reported that in museums with operating budgets of over $15 million, women hold just 30% of art museum directorships.
AP: We think of the art world as really progressive. In truth, in terms of business, it represents the societal norms. In fact, you could take a look at corporate America, and the major Fortune 500 companies are probably doing better in terms of woman leadership than major museums are in this country. Women have made a lot of strides in the industry. There are more female chief curators and leaders. However, overall our cultural institutions reflect the larger limitations of our society.
How does the Brooklyn Museum compare?
AP: The Brooklyn Museum happens to be a historically progressive institution. When the museum was founded in 1823, it was before there were public schools in this country. The idea was to educate wayward young men through exposure to the arts and sciences from around the globe.
We were collecting African art as art in 1910 before anybody was thinking about it as anything more than ethnographic material. The list goes on about how progressive and open-minded this institution is. It’s not a surprise to me that the Brooklyn Museum was the first to break down some of these societal barriers.
Currently ongoing at the Brooklyn Museum is A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism, a series of exhibitions celebrating feminist art. What motivated you to focus on feminist art and the history of feminism?
AP: The Brooklyn Museum is the only museum to have a feminist center – the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. There are those who argue that a feminist center should not be necessary. Women should be equally represented, and all the stories that we tell through our collection should be inclusive of women’s stories. That’s true, but we don’t live in an ideal society. Until you expand the canon of art history and history by including women’s history and then begin to integrate it into everything that we do, you will continue to have a problem.
When I joined the museum, I knew it was the 10th anniversary of the Sackler Center and that the museum intended to have a celebration, but it wasn’t clear what that would be. I thought a radical gesture for the celebration was to move the Center through everything that we do at the museum – essentially take over the entire museum. There are 10 exhibitions, a conference and a new look at Georgia O’Keeffe in terms of her self-determination as an artist. We’re trying to think through a future feminist lens – one that’s about social justice, equity and opportunity. It’s really a civil rights and human rights issue.
Another exhibit is on gender transformation in ancient Egypt. The idea of gender in ancient Egypt, and ancient times in general, was completely different than it is today. With young people breaking down the ideas of gender binaries and being gender nonconforming, having a conversation about gender in ancient times and in different belief systems is a way to engage them to learn about Egyptian history.
Recently, David Berliner was appointed president and COO of the Brooklyn Museum. How has that changed your day to day?
AP: I don’t have words for how profoundly grateful and blessed I am to have a partner at the museum who I can trust as much as David. I don’t have to ask him what he’s doing, because I know he’s always a step or two ahead of me. Now that he has joined, I’m free to work more on strategy and on relationship building, the curatorial and programmatic aspects and fundraising.
The museum is hustling right now. I feel a sense of impatience to grow and see what is going to make this museum the most trailblazing, relevant institution on the planet. There’s a lot of competition out there, but we’re going to do it. I have David to help transform this giant institution, and it’s a great partnership.
Your background is in public arts. How has that affected what you are doing now as museum director?
AP: My background is in giving exceptional artists opportunities to realize their dreams that couldn’t be realized anywhere else, and connecting the art of our time to the issues of our time. I’ve spent a lot of time with diverse publics – those who are very sophisticated about art, and those who know absolutely nothing about art. Having spent years interacting with the public, I’ve gained a lot of insight into how people experience exhibitions. It’s made me a more visitor-centric director.
My previous experience was about connecting art with ideas, social issues and social justice. I believe strongly that the Brooklyn Museum could play that role too, which is not a goal that other encyclopedic institutions necessarily have the freedom to do.
How important is it to you that the museum staff and the exhibits reflect the diversity of the neighborhood around the museum?
AP: My predecessor, Arnold Lehman, always said that the most important book that a museum director should read is the U.S. Census. He understood the importance, necessity, urgency and power of representing diverse voices and viewpoints. I’m reminded of that every day. We have a diverse staff because Arnold built a diverse staff. We have a diverse board because Arnold built a diverse board. Our programming benefits because we are looking at so many narratives – our audiences can see themselves in other people’s stories. I’m trying to build on that legacy.
Allison, how have you worked with private clients on charitable giving or gifting of artwork or an entire collection?
AW: Given my role, a common client question is, “We would like to make a gift to the Brooklyn Museum. Can you put a value on this?” We work with our specialists in the Estates, Appraisals & Valuations department to put together appraisals for the donor to submit to the IRS to make his or her museum donation tax deductible. Sometimes it’s a single work, and sometimes it’s an entire collection.
We usually get involved when museum curators or the collections managers call us and say, “We have someone who wants to make a gift and needs an appraisal.” My colleagues in the Estates, Appraisals & Valuations department will work directly with those collectors or coordinate with their staff or handlers.
Interestingly, not everybody who is making gifts to institutions wants the tax deduction. Some people are so generous that they’re unable to use a tax deduction, and they make the gift anyway. We worked with a West Coast museum where an elderly man who’s been collecting American art for decades donated the whole collection and had only asked for an appraisal because he wanted to know the gift’s value.
AP: More people are amassing large collections now than they historically have because there’s more wealth. They’re taking a look at their estates and thinking, “I’d like to give it to X museum, but if it’s never going to be shown, why would I do that? Maybe it will have a better life if it’s sold at auction and more people can share it.” They’ll have people over for dinner parties or have museum groups visit.
How does tax policy shape gifting practices?
AW: If tax policy changed, and gifts of art were no longer deductible, we might find that gifting practices change too. It is an unfortunate situation. We sometimes get inquiries from people saying, “I want to make this donation, but I’m open to possibly selling instead.” Sometimes they see the appraisal value and say, “Actually, I think I’d rather sell it.”
If you had to live on a desert island, what piece of art would you take with you?
AW: The truth is, I would want to bring a book if I were on a desert island, not art. But if I could have one artwork, what would it be? I was in the Yucatán recently; there was an amazing James Turrell outdoor symphony of lights in Hacienda Ochil. I sat out in the dark with my husband and two friends for a private 40-minute viewing of the light show around an amazing ancient tree and water. I figure there will be an ancient tree and water on my desert island so I’ll take Turrell’s light installation.
AP: I probably would rather have music. What’s really close to my heart, though, is the first artwork that my husband ever made for me. It’s a photograph of a rose taken with blue photographic film. That’s what I’ll bring – a piece of my husband.
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