How Much Does It Cost to Put on a Jeff Koons Show? Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum Just Spent $1 Million

"We were warned," said the museum's director of the expense.

Jeff Koons with Rabbit (1986). Photo ©David Fisher, 2019.

Jeff Koons‘s big, shiny sculptures have the wow factor, but borrowing them for a museum comes at an eye-watering cost. Oxford’s Ashmolean spent just over $1 million transporting and installing 17 of the artist’s works for his current solo show at the museum. The size of the budget gives a glimpse into the rising cost of mounting major museum exhibitions involving international loans.

“We were warned by others,” says the Ashmolean’s director, Alexander Sturgis, who says that the expense was due to the size of the works and the distance they traveled, from mainly private collections in the US and Europe. Getting Koons’s support for the show was relatively easy—he jumped at the chance to return to Oxford—but securing the loans was the hard part as all of the works are “jealously guarded” by their owners, Sturgis says.

An edition of Rabbit (1986), Koons’s three-foot-tall stainless steel bunny, proved a particular challenge to borrow. The Ashmolean belatedly discovered why the late S.I. Newhouse’s edition was unavailable: the Condé Nast tycoon’s sculpture is headed to Christie’s New York next week, where it is predicted to set a new auction record for the artist.

Koons first visited the Ashmolean as an invited guest in 2016. He was back this week for a talk last night at its famous Sheldonian Theatre. The conversation with the art historian Martin Kemp was a far cry from Koons’s first talk to the university’s students. In 2016, he accepted an invitation from a group of students interested in art history to receive their inaugural prize for making an outstanding contribution to visual culture. The event took place in the museum and Sturgis reveals that Koons was probably expecting a grander affair on his first visit, but was nonetheless generous with his time and enthusiastically engaged with the undergraduates and academics who had turned up for the low-profile event.

Jeff Koons accepts the Edgar Wind award from Oli Lloyd-Parry. Image courtesy of the Edgar Wind Society.

Oli Lloyd-Parry was a final year medical student with the chutzpah to write to Koons inviting him to accept the honorary membership of the Edgar Wind Society and deliver the talk. “Jeff was delighted to accept the invitation. I am pleased to note that this award features prominently in the list of honors in [his] official biography,” says the former president of the student society.

Lloyd-Parry and Sturgis raised the possibility of Koons doing something at the Ashmolean at an Oxford dinner. Sturgis says that Koons was “very engaged” from the start. On a subsequent visit to New York the museum director was impressed to see the scale model of the Ashmolean’s galleries that Koons had already made to plan the installation of his work. “He is a stickler for details,” Sturgis says. He puts the Ashmolean’s appeal to the American artist down to a combination of Oxford’s prestige, the museum’s collection of classical archaeology, and the institution’s claim to be England’s oldest public museum.

Major supporters of the show included the New York-based financier and Oxford graduate, Neil Simpkins. The chair of Americans for Oxford, the university’s supporters organization, was “unquestionably helpful,” Sturgis says. Koons and his gallery Gagosian also supported the show. The artist has created Flower Drawings, a limited edition of 50 prints to be sold in aid of the Ashmolean. They are on sale for £11,500 ($15,000), so could raise a six-figure sum for the museum.

The UK government indemnity scheme was also crucial, as commercial insurance premiums would have made the exhibition prohibitively expensive. Sturgis says that the Ashmolean is now working with Leiden’s Museum De Lakenhal in the Netherlands to bring the exhibition “Young Rembrandt” to Oxford next year, again, the government scheme is vital.

Star loans, including Rembrandt’s The Noble Slav  (1632) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, should be simpler to install and light than Koons’s sculpturesThe exhibition budget to show the Old Master’s early paintings is on a par with bringing Koons’s work to Oxford. “The Koons show was at the expensive end of Ashmolean exhibitions but not exceptionally so,” Sturgis says.

“Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean,” February 7 through June 9, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.  


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