|An artist asks for the National Museum of Modern Art to disclose the the value of its acquisitions
Does the taxpayer have the right to know the value of works of art purchased by a museum on his behalf ?
This question is at the heart of a legal battle led, since 1994, by the artist Fred Forest against the National Museum of Modern Art (MNAM) from the Georges Pompidou Centre.
The former is claiming a legitimate right to information : the latter wants secrecy to protect a fragile sector - that is, modern and contemporary art - which is too often discredited by occasional demagogic arguments.
This affair questions the viability of a market which is sustained by the authorities, and the ability of the taxpayer to obtain figures which may appear to many to be breathtakingly high, knowing that a contemporary work of art could fetch in excess of one million francs.
The conflict began in 1994.
Referring to the 1978 law on the disclosure of public accountancy, Fred Forest asks how much the National Museum of Modern Art paid for a Hans Haacke work of art entitled " Shapolsky " (1971).
Encouraged by the Committee for access to administrative documents (Cada), the MNAM complied, claiming to have paid the Françoise Lambert Gallery in Milan 1.2 million francs for this work of art.
However, in a letter addressed to the President of Cada, Germain Viatte, the manager of MNAM explains why the acquisitions must be treated with discretion : " A few years ago, a major work of art by Barnett Newman was destroyed by an act of vandalism in a German museum, following the publication in the press of the price of the acquisition ".
"Entre les deux mon coeur balance"
Article from the newspaper « LE MONDE » Edition of February, 8th 1997 (page 28).
Fred Forest isnt satisfied with this victory and asks for the value of all works of art purchased by the MNAM since 1985.
The museum refuses.
The artist, therefore, takes this matter to a Tribunal.
The museum refers to a section of the 1978 law which stipulates that an authority can refuse this request in the case where " the discussion or communication of such a matter could affect on industrial or commercial secret ".
The Tribunal swept this argument under the carpet and overruled the museums refusal, in a judgement passed on 7th July 1995.
The Georges Pompidou Centre is concerned, and today asked the Council of State for an appeal against this decision in order that arguments can be developped : a judgement in 1980 by the Cultural Minister stipulates that " documents related to the acquisition or order of valuable works of pieces of art cannot be discussed ".
In fact, the museums admit to buying " at preferentiel prices " divulging their transactions could unsettle an already unstable art market.
" The MNAM often pays too much, not necessarly at the best time, but when the market is strong ", replies Fred Forest .
Publishing the prices would encourage the MNAM to feel more responsible ". In order to force the matter art into the open, the artist has open a site on the internet dedicated to this trial.
The council of States decision will be reached on 17th February. At the time of the hearing on 15 th January, in order to throw back a number of arguments made by the Georges Pompidou Center, the Governement Commissioner put forward the " specificities of the Modern Art market where, on the one hand the price of a wok of art determines the rating of the artist, and where on the other hand, the market is particularly sensitive to purchasing strategies by the public dealers ".
What is the reason for his conclusion, deary in favour of the museum : " This fragility in the rate, this volatility in the market compared to the museums initiative to encourage us to retain the confidentiality of transactions on the grounds of commercial secrecy ".
Clear or not, foggy diversion or light morning mist ?
Knowing that the State purchases 80 % of the market, and in a climate of speculation regarding modern art and the different scandals which have shaken its institutions ; we ask does the French taxpayer have a right to know the price of works of art bought by a museum on his behalf ?
Reply by the Council for State 17 th February
Emergency remarks by Pierre Restany, 15 th January 1997 as the Council for State leaves.
Following the conclusions of the Government Commissioner :
" The whole Forest case has run into an accute phenomenon of conscience : shaving that in our democracy, clarity does not play a part when the information relates to purchases made by the State, and when, moreover, the Council for State confirms this situation de facto, as if it was obvious... Fred Forest has behaved as an eminently responsible citizen and ardent defender of the practice of individual freedom."