One of the pleasures of being an art critic in Washington is that you get an occasional glimpse of the city's private collections of contemporary art. One couple I've visited owns a gorgeous suite of Diane Arbus photos, a lovely Donald Judd wall sculpture and a pile of other stuff I'd give an eyetooth for. Another local collector owns one of my all-time favorite works by British artist Damien Hirst -- a sleek stainless-steel cabinet holding carefully placed cigarette butts -- as well as gems by Gerhard Richter and others. I know of an ordinary house in Woodley Park that hides an amazing spread of radical contemporary photo art.
But this pleasure, like most pleasures, comes with its frustrations.
For one thing, my readers never get a chance to see all this artistic plenty -- which, incidentally, makes it rather hard for me to write about.
For another, all this wonderful art is rarely shown in the pristine conditions it deserves. Collectors being notably prone to collect, and collect, and collect, even cherished treasures can end up crowded into remote nooks and crannies. Those Arbus photos now hang in a stairwell; stepping back to get a better look could prove fatal. But then, if the Arbuses were given more and better wall space, some other wonderful work would have to come down to make way for them. And as it stands, most longtime collectors already have way more good art than they can hang, so a lot of it inevitably ends up sleeping the years away in storage.
I have a solution to all of these frustrations. Let's call it the Washington Collectors' Project. Here's how it would work: A consortium of the city's best collectors of contemporary art would come together to make their art available for exhibition. They would find a modest, white-cube space and invite independent curators to fill it with selections from their holdings.
The project would be a win-win all around.
Washington's collectors would get to see their art looking its best. They'd even get to have a whole new take on it: A clever thematic exhibition can cast new light on every work it shows. Well-loved pieces languishing in storage could come out and be admired. And collectors would even have a welcome excuse to collect more, since they wouldn't have to worry about pressures of space and having to lose sight of one work to fit another in.
Washington collectors would also get an extra chance to flex their philanthropic muscles: Most of them are already on local museum boards; the WCP would let them do yet more immediate aesthetic good for the District's art lovers. Collectors with a bent for public display could make sure their names remain linked to works they've lent -- that might even set an example that could get other well-heeled Washingtonians purchasing contemporary art. Others could choose to fade into the background, happy to know the works they love are giving pleasure to strangers.
The public, of course, would get to see serious contemporary art that's otherwise in short supply. A city as important as Washington deserves a proper Institute of Contemporary Art, like the ones in London, Boston and Philadelphia, or like even bigger institutions in New York, Los Angeles and lots of other relatively minor cities. There are dozens of fascinating touring shows that never make it here, and this leaves art lovers and art makers in this city less nourished than they might be. The Hirshhorn does its best to fill the gap, but it has its Matisses and Oldenburgs to show, as well. The Corcoran, you'd think, would jump into this wide-open niche -- but as things stand, it doesn't have the kind of single focus that could make this happen. Until we get what we deserve, the WCP could, for some years at least, make sure that there's a wide range of quality contemporary art on view at any given time. As the first project of its kind, the WCP would also help to put the city on the art-world map, and would likely lead to copycatting elsewhere.
And the art experts mounting the WCP's shows would get a rare chance to hone their skills. There are tons of talented junior and independent curators floating around this country, but too few shows to give them work. And even the ones who do find jobs in museums or commercial galleries get so bogged down in paperwork and institutional agendas that they barely manage to think much about art or how to build an interesting, made-from-scratch show. The WCP could be a kind of safe haven for daring curatorial experiments without the pressures of a museum imprimatur. It would also give curators at the beginning of their career a chance to work with high-end art they'd usually have to wait years to get their hands on.
The cost would be minimal, especially if shared by a dozen or more wealthy collectors -- it might amount to what each of them would spend on a single, relatively minor purchase. The space shouldn't be that hard to find: Several of our local collectors have a hand in downtown real estate, and someone might even donate a loft at cost. There are city planning policies that promote an arts component in new development; the WCP might fill that bill.
You'd need somebody bright and young to mind and run the space, but the salary could be pretty modest -- the job would be the perfect springboard for a career in arts administration. You'd have insurance costs and the minor costs of carrying works across the city and installing them. And you'd want to pay a stipend to the freelance organizer of each show -- though that could almost certainly be wangled on a case-by-case basis from arts foundations and cultural agencies. (The city's embassies would probably be able to ship in promising curators from abroad to work here for a few weeks or months.) Most important, you'd have free access to a pile of quality contemporary works, ready to be shown to an underfed art public.
And then I would get to write about them.