Art museums keep almost all their art in storage and out of view, and then pretend they don’t have it, while charging an arm and a leg to get in to see what they actually show. Tim Schneider, whose weekly column on the business of art in ArtNet is worth following, joins the deaccession debate that has now linked two current controversies: the Metropolitan Museum’s decision to demand out-of-town visitors to pay the full $25 to get in, and the Berkshire Museum’s plan to sell most of its collection to start on a substantially changed mission.
Schneider reports a commonly quoted 10% of major museum collections as being on view, but it’s worse than that: a decade ago at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts it was about 5%, and at the Met more like 1%. To be fair, these are object counts, and the artistic (and money) value of what is shown is a much higher fraction of the total, but there is still a Golconda of treasure that isn’t on view and will never be. An important enabler of the rampant misallocation of so much of the world’s plastic arts patrimony into storage vaults is museum accounting rules that permits them to leave the entire collection off the balance sheet, effectively pretending it just isn’t there and in particular, isn’t available to fund programs (and physical expansion) that could put more art in front of more eyes; Schneider admirably concludes “let’s at least seriously consider [emphasis added] how billions of dollars in stored art might be able to help solve some of the crises afflicting art museums around the world.” Indeed.