Museums put things on display—just not themselves. A lot goes on behind those exhibition walls.
While reporting "The Most Unusual Art Gift Ever," I was struck by how little artists know about the way Seattle Art Museum actually functions. Somehow I assumed that just by being artists, they'd have some inside knowledge about art museums.
But of course they don't.
Art museums are byzantine and opaque. What we see on the walls are the final, neatly packaged results of closed-door debates between curators, delicate interactions with donors, and logistical puzzles of all kinds. We are privy only to the outcomes, not the processes. And "we" includes artists.
Which leads me to a sweet story that didn't make it into the article, of a misunderstanding one artist had when he was handing over his art to SAM.
Joey Veltkamp is a self-taught Seattle artist who said he didn't think he'd ever make it into the collection at Seattle Art Museum. But he's in that collection now, thanks to Deed of Gift, a work of art by Matthew Offenbacher and Jennifer Nemhauser. Deed of Gift was funded by a $25,000 art prize—the Neddy Award—that Offenbacher won for his own paintings.
As mentioned in the story, Veltkamp makes queer quilts, blending elements of macho, drag, and cute culture. When Offenbacher came to Veltkamp's studio to tell him that SAM had chosen one of his quilts—a choice made through one of those byzantine and opaque museum processes—Veltkamp acted the way Veltkamp always acts: humbly and generously.
"I love my friends, and I always want to make a deal, so I’m trying to undersell," Veltkamp remembered. He was trying to undersell his quilt. He thought if he made his quilt less expensive, SAM would be able to acquire even more art by women and queer artists.
Artists undervalue their work in order to just get it out there all the time. But it's particularly poignant when an underrepresented artist tries to undervalue himself in the process of entering a museum collection.
Offenbacher wasn't having it.
"They're very strict," continued Veltkamp. "They're like, 'I know you’ve shown it before. What’s the price it was then? That’s what we want to pay.' I thought, if we sell cheap, then we can get more for the collection, but [Offenbacher] told me no. He goes, 'It doesn’t work that way.'"
A Footnote About the Sex of SAM Artists and SAM Patrons
Veltkamp was the only male artist of the seven artists whose works were accepted for donation to the museum through Deed of Gift (again); the rest were women.
Women are included sparsely in many, if not most, art museum collections.
SAM doesn't keep tabs on the sex breakdown of its modern and contemporary art collection, but when asked, it was willing to do some tallying for me. As I wrote, the museum has acquired 221 works total for its modern and contemporary art collection in the last two years. Of those, 186 works were by men and 35 by women. (The modern and contemporary art collection cover the 20th and 21st centuries.)
But what about a breakdown of the donors by sex? I wasn't able to fit those numbers into the story, and the data isn't conclusive of anything in particular, but maybe it can inform something down the road.
According to SAM, of those 221 works, three were each donated by individual women; 46 were donated by four individual men; and 145 were donated by mixed-sex couples or groups.
The 221 also includes 28 artworks SAM has purchased in the last two years, by seven male artists and six female artists.
In the general interest of unraveling the mystery of art museums, I just thought you might like to know.