Any historian will tell you that it's impossible to definitively judge people or events until you can look back at them in the fullness of time. Yesterday's measured strategy can easily become today's overreaction. Yesterday's misfortune can easily become tomorrow's blessing. Yesterday's antagonists can easily become today's heroes.
To some degree, I believe this is exactly what's happened with the legacy of Peggy Guggenheim. And examining the how and why of it leads to some potentially valuable perspective on navigating the present-day art world.
For those who don't know, Guggenheim was a pivotal figure in the development of modern and early postwar art. While her uncle Solomon founded the iconic museum in the family's home base of New York, Peggy moved to Paris in 1920, then spent roughly the next two decades embedding in the starter culture of the European avant-garde. She went on to open two short-lived but historically vital galleries––Guggenheim Jeune in London (1938-39) and Art of This Century in New York (1942-47)––before returning to Europe more-or-less permanently. She ultimately settled in Venice and chose her adopted home as the host of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, today one of Europe's leading modern art museums.
Recently, Guggenheim has been resurrected in the media thanks to the theatrical release of a new documentary on her life. As Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict makes the critical rounds, the reactions I've seen so far have all been glowing––possibly even more for its title character than for the film itself. A prototypical example is this Los Angeles Times piece by Carolina Miranda, who kneecaps the Eli and Edythe Broads, Peter Brants, and Dakis Joannous of the current art world by suggesting they all follow a model in which an important collector is merely "someone who buys and spends." Guggenheim, in her view, was something much more: "a real art patron."
However, as fate would have it, I just finished Guggenheim's memoir, the less succinctly titled Confessions of an Art Addict. (Full disclosure: I thought it was a missed opportunity.) And having read it, I can't help but conclude that Guggenheim's reception in the press would be far less friendly if she were operating today.
Refocus the lens via 21st century outrage culture, and Guggenheim suddenly becomes a born one-percenter who spent her life gallivanting around the world buying art with her family's fortune. She used more of that legacy cash to open a London gallery that she ran into the ground in under two years. Then after gaining a foothold with her second gallery in New York, she abandoned it (based on her memoir, at least) basically because she decided she wasn't into living in the US anymore. Kazimir Malevich's heirs sued for restitution over a painting they believed Peggy had acquired unethically. (The two sides settled.) And in the course of her gallery run, Guggenheim employed some of the same tactics that have compelled today's art world to portray Stefan Simchowitz as the Babadook .
Case in point, Guggenheim writes in her memoir about how she put a then-unknown Jackson Pollock under contract during the Art of This Century era. In their initial agreement from 1943-44, Guggenheim paid Pollock $150 a month––less than $2,100 a month in today's dollars––in exchange for all the works he produced, with a “settlement” waiting at the end of the year: If she managed to sell more than $2,700 worth of his pieces, then Pollock would receive two-thirds of the profits above that figure; however, if her sales revenue on Pollock’s work fell short of the target, he would have to make up the difference in additional works.
From 1945 until Guggenheim’s move to Europe in 1947, though, she and Pollock moved to an even more Simchowitz-like arrangement. For $300 a month––just shy of $4,000 a month in today's dollars––Guggenheim bought the rights to Pollock’s entire output, with no year-end financial reckoning whatsoever. This left her free and clear to resell Pollock’s work at whatever markup she saw fit. So if the arrangements Simchowitz forges with young unknown quantities today seem predatory to you, consider the prospect of owning two years' worth of Pollocks for the equivalent of about $96,000.
Interestingly, Miranda herself provides evidence that a double standard is at work. Here's how she writes about the Pollock contracts in the aforementioned LA Times piece:
For Guggenheim didn't simply buy up artists' work, she supported and promoted them at crucial points in their careers. Most famously, she took on Pollock, who was then working as a carpenter at her uncle's museum, and gave him an allowance so that he could focus on painting... when it was nowhere near certain that Pollock would be an artistic success.
...and here's how she described industry sentiment about Simchowitz in a links roundup earlier this year:
Plus, the New York Times Magazine profile that's burning up the art world Facebooks: how the notorious art speculator Stefan Simchowitz has helped give quick rise to a generation of young artists outside the traditional gallery system. He calls it "investing." Many others call it "flipping" (which comes at terrific cost to the artist).
I hate to use Miranda as a vehicle for this point, because she's generally very sharp and often one of my favorite art-world reads in any given week. But this is a rare case where I think she gets it wrong.
Why does Guggenheim get a pass? I'd point to three reasons. First, the most potentially controversial aspects of her career all happened so far in the past that the most heartwarming (and admittedly more numerous) aspects of the narrative have been able to box them out thanks to the magic of recency bias. Second, she gave away much of the work she acquired rather than selling it, even before founding the Guggenheim Collection in Venice.
However, based on her memoir, it seems like this decision may have flowed less from her being a committed philanthropist than from the third reason: the fact that she was, by her own frequent admission in the memoir, a terrible salesman. Since Guggenheim never got rich off of deals like the one she made with Pollock, those deals have gotten classified as patronage. But I wonder how differently they would be perceived if she had just been a better dealer, let alone (to return to the outrage narrative) someone who actually had to support herself rather than being able to perpetually fall back onto a mattress stuffed with family riches.
I don't bring any of this up to bash Guggenheim. I have tremendous respect for what she did for art history. I only raise the issue to try to reframe our perspective on the present. Her legacy confirms that yesterday's exploitation can become today's patronage. It all depends on what else happens in between now and the end. Perhaps we would all be able to navigate the industry a little more deftly if we kept that in mind.