Idled capital

Managers know that organizations are liable to mismanage capital both ways; sometimes we undercapitalize workers because it seems more expensive than it really is to give them what they need to do their work (proper classrooms in schools and universities are a common example here), and sometimes we ignore capital goods being wasted by disuse.

In the second category, spectacularly, are most of the works of art in top-rank and even middle-level museums. Museums that show a tiny fraction of their collections (5% is common) have the rest in storage unseen and unused until…until when? In practice, until the time that a curator might write an article. Eli Broad has given the Los Angeles County Museum of Art a hatful of money to build a new building that will have his name, but has had second thoughts about a tacit promise to give his collection of 2000 works to the museum.

“We don’t want it to end up in storage, in either our basement or somebody else’s basement,” Mr. Broad said. “So I, as the collector, am saying, ‘If you’re not willing to commit to show it, why don’t we just make it available to you when you want it, as opposed to giving it to you, and then our being unhappy that it’s only up 10 percent or 20 percent of the time or not being shown at all?’”

Bravo, Mr. Broad. Now lets start doing some hard thinking about the real binding constraint on what museums should be about, namely (as my Arts and Cultural Policy students usually come to see it) “More better engagement by more people with art”. Candidates include

1. exhibition space in museums generally and in any particular city

2. works of art owned by any particular museum

3. museum admission pricing

4. interpretive and educational complements to art engagement, at the museum, in schools, and from parents

5. social conventions and expectations of art engagement

6. private ownership of original works

7. works of art displayed in museums

8. audience available time

9. audience hands-on experience as amateur artists

As Mr. Broad astutely notes, “having more stuff in the basement” (the difference between #2 and #7) never appears in this list, because it has nothing to do with the objective as stated. I point out the obvious, that “more better engagement etc.” is not precisely the same as “more status and peer reputation for museum professional staff”. These subtle, delicate, hairsbreadth distinctions are a specialty of policy academics, preen preen; of course we are happy to share, and pleased when the likes of Mr. Broad notice them on his own.

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.