New York Times

ART; Restless Museums, Repatriated Art, Record Sales

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Published: December 24, 2006

THE calendar year is the familiar, arbitrary conceit for dividing up the art season, but its end doesn't really mark anything except a hiatus. More than anything it's a cliffhanger, leaving open questions. Looking back, an odd assortment of shows, not exactly a Top 10 list, more a constellation of memories, come to mind: Harrell Fletcher's traveling show of Vietnam war photographs, which stopped at White Columns in New York; the American comic masters show organized in Los Angeles, now at the Jewish and Newark Museums; Fernando Botero's Abu Ghraib paintings at Marlborough; photographs by Enrique Metinides, Mexico's Weegee, which also was in Los Angeles and is now at Anton Kern; and Robert Adams's grave, silent pictures of the Lewis and Clark trail that Matthew Marks presented.

As for open questions, the year ends with several local museums in the midst of trouble or change: This year veteran curators quit the Brooklyn Museum in despair over how its director, Arnold L. Lehman, had been running the place. Judging from the appalling installations of the great American and Egyptian collections, among other signs of wrongheadedness in the name of community outreach, there is good reason to wonder whether this grand institution will ever regain its former glory and respect.

The Whitney Museum is scrapping its uptown expansion for a downtown home in the meatpacking district. Why not? The Whitney will have increased competition when the New Museum reopens, and expanding in another part of town might be a rejuvenating response, if and when this insecure but indispensable institution finally figures out what it wants, and needs, to be in a city ever more crowded with contemporary art.

Meanwhile the Dia Center for the Arts, which considered occupying the same space the Whitney's now eyeing, is in limbo. Like the Guggenheim's, its cachet has rested on the impression that it could keep many different balls in the air. The high point came a few years ago with the opening of its own version of the Guggenheim's Bilbao in Beacon, N.Y.

This year Michael Govan, its longtime director (and not coincidentally, the former right-hand man to the Guggenheim's leader, Thomas Krens), departed, as did Dia's major patron, Leonard Riggio. They leave a place without a home in New York City, beset by money troubles and doubts. Can it maintain Beacon, return to New York and continue to support expensive, far-flung land art projects like James Turrell's ''Roden Crater'' and Michael Heizer's ''City''?

The legal and public relations struggle over the return of antiquities to Italy and Greece by American museums like the Metropolitan and the Getty became an occasion this year for much thoughtful hand-wringing, raising the big question: Where, as a society, will we stand on the issue of cultural property? Clearly we love our museums and love to doubt their integrity.

Restitution is obligatory when international laws are broken. But evidence is frequently vague. Ethics can be too. Ask the archaeologists who have been trying to piece together what's left of the Bamiyan Buddhas, blown up by the Taliban in 2001 in Afghanistan, whether objects necessarily ''belong'' to the people who now occupy the land where the art comes from.

The Met transferred title of a famous Greek vase and 20 other objects to Italy this year: the booty of a long-dead empire heading back to the modern state that happens to be on its soil. The law was served, and the gesture seemed savvy.

At the same time American museums retained, and continue to retain, art dubiously collected from countries in Africa and Southeast Asia, where the Khmer Rouge, for example, ransacked Cambodian monuments and hawked fragments to finance their regime. How far should we go to purge our museums? At the heart of the patrimony issue is American self-identity: capitalism, free trade and the democratic ideal.

And is there any way to describe the escalating orgy of spending on art this year but as obscene? Collectors were paying upward of $130 million for Pollocks and Klimts, sums that make a skeptic ponder the other uses to which such fortunes could be put. The art world seems content, damn the potential long-term cost of being reduced to a mere investment vehicle.

A few years back a lawyer for Jewish families seeking restitution from Swiss banks provoked a scandal when it became known that he took as a fee some $4 million. This year when members of a Jewish family sold the Klimts that Austria had finally returned to them, the family's lawyer is said to have pocketed 40 percent of the $300 million they fetched. (Who knows how his contingency fee influenced the family's decision to sell the art?) Almost nobody blinked.

I started with a few shows that made the year memorable. I should end with Goya at the Frick, Bonnard in Paris, Vel‡zquez in London and Elsheimer in Dulwich. A last question: Could 2007 possibly improve on that?