Smithsonian to Display Bill Koch’s Vast Collection of Western Ephemera
Coal and oil billionaire William Koch, brother of Tea Party backers Charles and David Koch, is bringing his vast Western art collection to the Smithsonian American Art Museum from March 28 to August 24, 2014. More than 1,000 pieces of Western art will be on view in "The Western Frontier," and the entire show will come from Koch's private collection.
Should we be concerned about Wild Bill Hikoch? Yes we should, I reckon.
One problem is that a lot of Koch's stuff doesn't belong in the American Art Museum. Koch's collection includes archival photographs of Annie Oakley and Wyatt Earp, among other Wild West luminaries—more of a National Portrait Gallery joint. Koch's collection runs deep in Western painting and sculpture, including several beloved nocturne paintings by Frederic Remington and works by N.C. Wyeth and Charles Russell. These Western paintings might complement American Art's more coastal concentration in this period—from Asher Durand's 1848 Dover Plains, Dutchess County, New York to Albert Bierstadt's 1868 Among the Sierra Nevada, California—were "The Western Frontier" a curated exhibit.
Instead, many of the Koch items that will be displayed are what the museum describes as "material culture objects," from "gold nuggets and pick axes" (everyday Western stuff) to a gun that may be the rifle owned by Sitting Bull (historical Western stuff). These objects will obviously fascinate people, and it's reasonable to imagine that some of them belongs in the Smithsonian. But buckskin shirts and the world's only photo of Billy the Kid don't have a place in the American Art Museum—whose mission is to show art—any more than the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project or a complete basilosaurus skeleton do. Much of the Koch collection instead falls under the purview of the National Museum of American History, or perhaps the History Channel, or maybe even the Bismarck Municipal Airport gift shop.
Then there's the greater issue of provenance. Placing "attributed" historical objects without fully documented sourcing (e.g., the Army revolver worn by Jesse James) at a Smithsonian museum lowers the high bar set by the institution. Provenance is a specific problem with the Koch collection. For example, the gun used to kill Jesse James, which Koch also owns, was allegedly stolen in 1968 from its Towson, Md., owner while it was on view in Missouri, before it reappeared at auction in 1993. Koch himself has even been the victim of counterfeiters.
In a sense, though, "The Western Frontier" is immune to penetrating criticism, because it's a giveaway from a collector who's used to worse.
Bill Koch is generally perceived as a less extreme Koch—more like the eldest Koch brother, the manuscript-collecting, castle-buying Frederick Koch. The more notorious Charles and David bought out Bill's share in Koch Industries in the 1980s, but not without sparking a string of intrafamily lawsuits, including one in which Bill alleged that the Koch company was stealing oil from federal and Native American-owned land. Bill later added to his share of the family fortune by developing coal and other minerals with his company, the Oxbow Group; Forbes estimates his worth at $4 billion. In the last presidential election, he donated millions to the Mitt Romney-supporting SuperPAC Restore Our Future. Today, no one's drinking Bill Koch's milkshake: At 72, he spends his time sailing excelsior boats, buying gobs of art and antiques, blocking wind turbine developers from ruining the view from his summer mansion in Cape Cod, mulling over his 40,000 bottles of wine, and adding buildings to his working replica frontier town outside Aspen.
Now, Koch has got the Smithsonian to lend its aegis to his large collection of Western ephemera. (David Koch, we should note, also recently gave a record $35 million to the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History.) The risk for the Smithsonian is one that single-collector shows represent for any museum. Single-collector shows are a troubling temptation for art museum directors, who are indulging in them more and more frequently, especially as the difficult economy persists. The problem with exhibits that represent just one collector's vision is that they lack the scholarship, editing, and sourcing that viewers expect and deserve from good museums. Koch is not a curator; he is a baron. Many museums, including MoMA and the Whitney, will not mount single-collector shows unless the baron has made his collection a gift to the museum.
Former Association of Art Museum Directors Michael Conforti refused to answer questions about single-collector exhibits in 2009, when "vanity" shows were the subject of a great deal of controversy. That year, following a staggering New Museum giveaway to trustee Dakis Joannou, the Brooklyn Rail lent its cover space to artist Bill Powhida, who crucified the museum for mounting the show. Vanity shows are not merely a concern for people who believe in strong art exhibits. The IRS prohibits tax-exempt organizations from operating in ways that benefit private individuals. One of the concerns about that New Museum exhibit was that its prominent placement would almost certainly lead to higher values for the works on display—all of which belonged to trustee Joannou, a Greek Cypriot hotel baron.
Despite its public mission and public financing, the Smithsonian can and does mount single-collector exhibits. (Smithsonian museums depend on private donations to fund exhibitions and other museum programming.) In 2006-2007, the museum showed the Marie and Hugh Halff collection, a wonderful sequence of 26 Impressionist paintings that D.C. viewers should hope find their way into the American Art collection, even if the Halff collection exhibit made no particular argument about Impressionism. In 2010, the Smithsonian American Art Museum mounted an especially crude vanity exhibit—one that drew blockbuster crowds: "Telling Stories" featured Norman Rockwell paintings pulled from the collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The exhibit at American Art did nothing to frame or contextualize Rockwell's paintings, which can read like propaganda for the Greatest Generation. Some Americans salivate for that; others might be turned off by the fact that Rockwell's romanticism peddles an exclusionary narrative of privilege.
So does the Wild West. It was not an era that was particularly liberating or ennobling for several American populations, including Native Americans, enslaved African Americans, and women. Sure, it's tough to gauge Koch's curatorial vision of America without knowing more about the collection, and viewers shouldn't necessarily assume too much about Koch's proclivities as an art collector based on his business interests. But just look at the museum's narrative for this exhibition: "To this day, the national self-image of Americans as a can-do, self-reliant, individualistic, inventive, live-and-let-live people reflects this collective history." Whose self-image? Whose collective history? Who let whom live and let live?
Whether the thrust of Koch's Western collection is primarily historical or political might not even be the biggest issue here. There are better questions to ask of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Why is this exhibit at American Art, other than for the fact that Koch is a board member? What are the restrictions on this show's display? How much money has Koch given to the Smithsonian? Does Koch's collection feature whips and chains alongside spurs and saddles? (The museum has not yet responded to requests for comment.)
It's a shame that the museum must stoop to answer such questions after it has mounted several important shows so recently, including "The Civil War and American Art" (curated by Eleanor Harvey) and "Nam June Paik: Global Visionary" (curated by John Hanhardt). Those shows demonstrate such a strong grasp of the way that American history can be told through its art. So does the museum's incredible Western collection, the Indian Gallery by George Catlin. Luis Jiménez's Vaquero is one of the best (modern) Western artworks anywhere. Those works are all there for the part of American history they tell (and because they're great artworks). When a collector strolls into town with a story to tell, it's worth asking whose.
Photo: A version of the only known photograph of Billy the Kid, via Wikimedia Commons