Anxious and nettled by national politics and crime in high places? The wise know at these times to be anxious and nettled instead by [the discontents of] art and culture, the most important sphere of public affairs. OK, not the most important, but still, consider health policy: surely very important…but if life isn’t worth living, why bother to make it longer?
The amazing shenanigans at the Getty Museum are all about a compulsion to acquire art, including a lot of art that is almost never shown, that museums have substituted for a lot of other things they could do with their collections that would result in more engagement by more people with better art. Shouldn’t that be the overarching standard for judging cultural institutions’ behavior?
This goal displacement, in my view, is abetted by an accounting convention of which few people outside the business are aware. If you look at the balance sheet of a museum, you will find that its art collection is invisible. Museums typically do not evaluate (in money) nor report collections as assets. This odd practice has been intermittently a lively issue in accounting circles, and is at issue again before the FASB, which establishes accounting practices for practically everyone.
The numbers involved are quite remarkable; I estimate (very roughly) that (for example) the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago is in the dozens of billions of dollars. Simply recognizing collections as assets, using imperfect but adequate and practical valuation mechanisms, could have a lot to do with getting museums to create much more value than they do.
For example, a museum like the Art Institute could endow free admission forever by selling about 1% of its collection (the least artistically important 1%, of course). These works would almost certainly go from storage now to being on view somewhere else, so the deal would probably be a gain on both ends. And judicious selling of collection items seems to be becoming a habit with museums lately.
There’s no guarantee that capitalizing collections, which could be done with useful accuracy at manageable cost, would actually cause behavioral change in the art world, but it would at least make it possible to ask quite reasonable questions. For example: “I see we’ve entrusted you with so-and-so many billions of dollars worth of precious capital. What value are you creating with it? Is that a lot; should we give you more resources to employ…or a little; perhaps some of it should be in more creative and productive hands?” These are good questions grownup managers should be happy to answer.
I think the effects would be almost entirely positive, a view elaborated in the paper at this link.