Enabling institutional decay by bad journalism

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.


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.

11 thoughts on “Enabling institutional decay by bad journalism”

  1. Mike,

    This belongs in a broader venue — I hope you will write up these thoughts and send them to NYT op-ed page.

  2. Idea for a caper movie: idealistic Berkeley professor masterminds a gang of art thieves liberating unseen works of art from the dungeons of hoarding museums. The plot problem is getting the works into circulation afterwards. Selling them to mad billionaires to gloat over in private doesn't help. Perhaps shipping them to Venezuela?

  3. Great essay.

    Another instance of the problem of hardheaded business people going soft in the head is the tolerance of money-losing athletic programs by university trustees.

  4. Three things to think about. First the Met has in fact been selling off artwork. If you look on the Christie's website you will see they raised $4 million to fund the just begun renovation of their English period rooms, by selling surplus English furniture. A similar de-accessioning of Chinese porcelains was also auctioned off through Christie's. It should be noted that as part of its fiduciary responsibility these sales are almost always auctions to guarantee the museum is getting the best price. But that also means that most of these de-accessioned items are now in private hands and unavailable to anyone. Other museums just don't have the funds.

    Second, lots of art and artefacts that are not displayed at the Met are lent to other institutions for their special exhibitions. Check out any special exhibition you go to and you will almost always find pieces from the Met (as well as many other fine institutions). Artworks are held by museums as a public trust and lending and scholarship are part of this.

    Third, in fact, parts of the collection such as works on paper and photographs and textiles that are rarely if ever displayed are still available to the public and to scholars to view by appointment.

    I don't think it is as clear cut as you suggest in your article.

    1. good for them, if true! Both sales violate the AAMD code of ethics, unless the money was spent to acquire more art, and by that code, no museum should ever lend anything to the Met or borrow from it.
      If they weren't so stingy with normal accounting information, we could make a reasonable assessment of their behavior.
      Works in fragile media are indeed a problem, having a finite lifetime (actually pretty long, though) of exposure to light. But these works either are going to have that lifetime used with people looking at them, or they will simply be hidden away forever. the challenge is to allocate the lifetime through the future efficiently. And they might be out and looked at by more people in other institutions.

  5. Yeah, slow clap, sooooo this, as the young'uns say. And without bothering to elaborate on all of the details, um, The Vatican Galleries???

  6. Yes, about enabling institutional decay by bad journalism I have read a lot of information through this post. If anyone Milfs Seeking Dating just clicks and visit. As a reader, I appreciate your writing and "the ‘crisis’ issue you described very well. Thanks and have a good day!

Comments are closed.