Conflicts of Interest past and present: Museum/gallery directors/cuators and things they collect

The new Singapore Art Museum director Dr Lingham is a practising artist, and the linked article alludes to her continuation in artwork-production even as she assumes her new directorial role (click here). It is good that a director of a museum not only feels strongly about that institution’s subject area, but is also a practising artist (at least in SAM’s case). As an art ‘insider’, Dr Lingham should be able to bring new perspectives to her exhibitions at SAM, and connect on a different plane with artists like her.

But there is a fine line, isn’t there? Let’s say in the future, Dr Lingham produces an artwork that is deemed good enough to enter SAM’s permanent collection. Should it? Those who say ‘yes’ may defend the merit of the artwork, saying that it is good enough for the national collection, and that Dr Lingham’ concurrent role as SAM’s director should not matter. The naysayers will insist that as Director, she has no right to bring her artwork into the SAM collection, simply due to a conflict of interest; “Do you know the Director has assessioned her own artwork into her museum’s collection?”. And to complicate matters, what if SAM’s money is to be used to pay Dr Lingham for her artwork? While I’m peering into what seems to be a problem in the ‘future’, past and present curators and directors may have already blurred the line between what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when it comes to such conflicts of interests.

What ‘conflicts’ can there be? First, it’s about money, of course. If a museum staff buys for the museum (and in turn sends lots of money in the direction of art dealers), this staff may then purchase artefacts for personal use from the same dealers at a large discount; a classic case of ‘I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine’… Second, if a museum staff is collecting the same types of artworks both for himself and the museum, he may buy the best (rarest, oldest etc) ones for his own collection (at a discount possibly), while buying the second-best for his museum. So through this museum staff’s ‘first cut’, the quality of the museum’s collection loses out. Third, when a museum staff builds up a steady relationship with an art dealer though many years (and dollars) of purchases, this staff may gloss over the ethical issues that dogs a seller’s offerings. One example is a museum buying things from regular ‘trusted’ dealers – because the buyer-seller relationship is well-established – even though they deal in dubious artefacts (such as recently looted items, like from illegal shipwreck salvagers).

Some examples follow. Maybe I should not name names as they can’t defend themselves. So the people discussed here shall remain anon.

Case 1: A very senior staff of an aesthetics institution (guess which one?) is also a very prolific Indonesian art collector. It is claimed that the staff’s small apartment is crammed with contemporary paintings. And it is quite clear to many that that staff had been buying from the same art dealers that sell artworks to her/his aesthetics institution (and incidentally, this staff also has a big say in recommending which artworks to buy from which dealers). Surely there must be a conflict of interest for this person to be buying art for herself/himself and also for the institution that s/he works in, right?

Case 2: An ex-very-senior staff of a local museum was an avid collector of ceramics. S/he also bought ceramics from local dealers both for herself/himself and also the museum. Was s/he ever offered discounts for her/his personal purchases, or did s/he ever buy something for himself even when its quality was well-suited for her/his museum’s collection? Who knows?

Case 3: An ex-Board Member of a local museum was reputedly one of the largest collectors of Southeast Asian artefacts – mostly stone – in Singapore. S/he hardly cares about where these stuff come from (which means s/he not only bought looted stuff, but also fakes). Her/his home would make a good set for an Angelina Joile sequel-movie, if you get my drift. And this ex-Board Member also bought stuff from the same dealers that supplied artefacts to her/his museum (and incidentally, her/his signature was needed before a purchase was made for the museum). Conflictssssss of interest?

As Singapore moves ahead in this world of heritage and art, the world is watching. We are afterall the ‘new rich’ of the world who is spending billions to buys some ‘class’. While some of the money is well-spent, the authorities must ensure that the possible conflicts of interest discussed above are well within their sights. Perhaps such museum staff in ‘buying’ positions should have to declare their personal interests (what artefacts do they collect? who do they buy from?) annually, much like how civil servants have to declare which shares/properties they own?

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