Putting museum collections to work

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.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

7 thoughts on “Putting museum collections to work”

  1. Mike, you are right, of course. It's worth adding in to this discussion, though, that art-squirreled-away-in-the-basement, brought out and sold, is a close substitute for other old art and for new art. If there is a huge flood of deaccessioned art onto the market, the competing offerings from currently active artists and people who now individually hold old art should diminish in sale price. There's only so much wall space in the homes of today's techies and hedgies! This will be a real kick in the teeth for today's artists, many of whom are scrabbling for a living already. Doesn't mean it's the wrong thing to do, but I expect it will be a real effect.

    1. Large volumes of art can be soaked up in public buildings like schools and hospitals. The UK has several charities (example) that buy lots of paintings from young artists and stick them in the corridors of NHS hospitals. The quality is variable of course but it's easy to find something you like. I don't know if any research has been done on the effects, but a priori the humanization should do some good.

      The Hospice de Beaune (of the famous and high-priced wine auction, it still functions as a care home) is a mediaeval hospital that helpfully provided the patients in its main ward with a view of Rogier van der Weyden's stunning Last Judgement. Not exactly cheering, but motivating.

    2. Large volumes of art can be soaked up in public buildings like schools and hospitals. The UK has several charities (example) that buy lots of paintings from young artists and stick them in the corridors of NHS hospitals. The quality is variable of course but it's easy to find something you like. I don't know if any research has been done on the effects, but a priori the humanization should do some good.

      The Hospice de Beaune (of the famous and high-priced wine auction, it still functions as a care home) is a mediaeval hospital that helpfully provided the patients in its main ward with a view of Rogier van der Weyden's stunning Last Judgement. Not exactly cheering, but motivating.

      1. When they had more money than they could spend from their natural gas, the Dutch were buying any goddamn thing which their residents wanted to produce and call 'art' – I went to a scientific / UN conference at RIVM and the corridors were full of display cabinets. Quality uneven. I was told they had warehouses full of this stuff, and no one knew what the hell to do with it. They had, at least, stopped buying, on the theory that if you are in a hole a good thing to do is to stop digging.

  2. I got absolutely nowhere four years ago with my clever suggestion for a swap of one of the White House's more or less hidden Cézannes for a portrait by Gilbert Stuart of George Washington's black slave cook Hercules, currently in the Thyssen-Bornemisza gallery in Madrid. Trump surely cares less for Cézanne than Obama did, so that part of the deal still holds up. For the counterpart, I'll switch to George Grosz's "John the sex murderer" in the Hamburg Kunsthalle.

  3. I would like to see more thought given to leasing museum-owned works for display in businesses or private homes. The regimen would have to be worked out carefully, and even with good controls the risk of works occasionally being lost or damaged is not zero; but then those risks are not zero in the museum's basement either.

  4. Michael,
    An excellent post. Two questions:
    An art historian colleague said to me when I mentioned your idea that it has a big drawback as as far as scholars are concerned. This is that the works in storage are available to scholars, and that the collection of many second-rank works in central places faciltates their research. What do you think of that?
    Second, don't their holdings in storage allow the big museums to lend works so that when they want to put on big shows they can ask for loans in return? I imagine that the once-in-a-lifetime exhibit of Michelangelo drawings now at the Met was facilitated by all the loans they had made to the institutions that lent it drawings. What do you think of that argument?

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