Wicked waste: How museum culture cheats citizens out of access to art

There are more Monets in American museum basements than there are total Monets on display in 45 states.

Mike O’Hare explains how accounting policies (no, really) make art museums much less useful than they ought to be. The basic problem is that they don’t account for their art as an asset, and therefore don’t feel accountable – and aren’t held accountable – for whether they’re creating a reasonable return on that asset in terms of the experience that actual people have with art. This fits in with the taboo on “de-accessioning” (i.e., selling) art, which keeps paintings that would be important exhibits in second-rung museums isolated instead in the basements of first-rung museums. (There is one Monet on display in the state of Florida, zero in the rest of the south, zero in the Midwest outside Chicago, zero in the Mountain West, zero in the Pacific Northwest. There are twenty Monets not on display in the inventories of American museums.)

By selling 1% (by value; of course, more by item count) of its inventory, any big museum could endow free admission forever. Another 1% would finance 30% more wall space, allowing more art to be displayed. And the stuff sold wouldn’t drop down into a black hole; someone would be seeing it.

That such an obviously good idea is even controversial testifies to how ossified museum practice has become.

O’Hare’s essay is a classic piece of policy analysis; I may assign it for my first-year course. He starts with the fundamental question: What is the public interest to be served here? And then he thinks carefully through the questions of how to serve it better and what organizational and conceptual barriers are in the way.

Let’s face it: the fact that there’s only one Michael O’Hare is a Heavenly judgment on the wickedness of contemporary society. If we’d just been good, there would be at least six of him. But what’s done is done; let’s enjoy the O’Hare we have, and in the meantime let’s get something done about the scandalous waste of resources created by the way our great museums are managed.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

6 thoughts on “Wicked waste: How museum culture cheats citizens out of access to art”

  1. You said “There is one Monet on display in the state of Florida, zero in the rest of the south”. I’m sure your main point is valid, but there are three Monets on display in the New Orleans Museum of Art.

  2. yes, and two in the High (Atlanta). Mark overinterpreted the table in the paper, which only applies to the metropolitan areas included.

  3. Monets also can be seen at the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth Texas, and starting in October in Portland, Oregon and Cleveland Ohio.

  4. There are, in fact, five Monets on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art: The Red Kerchief, Water Lilies (Agapanthus), Gardener's House at Antibes, Spring Flowers and Low Tide at Pourville. They were acquired over a period ranging from 1916 to 1960.

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