For the second time in a month, Robin Pogrebin points her keyboard at the ‘crisis’ afflicting the Metropolitan Museum, and misses the central fact her sources are desperate to hide from her (and from us). The broad outlines of the situation are that the Met is going broke, bleeding money from reckless initiatives and programming it can’t afford (and, presumably, fundraising that’s falling short of hopes). The sums involved seem quite large, a $40m deficit and a $600m new modern art wing it can’t afford to build. But you would never know from Pogrebin’s reporting, and certainly not from any official Met information, that the museum owns a collection worth at least $40b, of which it shows or can ever expect to show only a tiny fraction. Sell, say, 2% of that off the bottom and out of musty storage (much more than 2% of the objects by count, of course), and there’s the new wing with money to spare, or an endowment that will cover the deficit forever, and the best 98% of the collection still in hand.
Better yet, the sold works would almost certainly go to buyers who will show them, like smaller museums outside NY, or even private collectors. Why can a serious reporter like Pogrebin skate right by relevant facts like this? Because museum administrators have conspired (literally, in writing themselves a code of ethics that forbids selling anything except to acquire more work) to hide that wealth from view (museums simply omit their collections from their balance sheets), and pretend that redistributing it to where it could actually provide some art engagement is some sort of moral offense against art.
It’s a wonder of the world that trustees, many of whom are tough-minded business people, go completely soft in the head when they sit in museum board meetings. If accosted by a homeless beggar saying “please help me! I’m hungry, and completely penniless. Well, except for the million-dollar art collection Dad left me, but you wouldn’t want me to sell any of that, would you?” I do not think Mr. Gotrocks would pony up, but he and the missus are happy to watch their museum cut programs, go on collecting art it has no space to show and no money to conserve, and run deficits, on exactly the same absurd proposition.