More on how museums [under]use their collections

Virginia Postrel (who has engaged the question, “shouldn’t museum holdings be where people can see them?” in the past)  riffs on my Democracy article in Bloomberg View; there was a podcast on Russ Roberts’ EconTalk last month. I’m not sure why this issue seems to ring bells in right-wing circles, but I like the idea that the sort of people likely to turn up at museum trustee meetings are coming upon it.  Maybe they will start to ask the kind of questions tough-minded captains of industry are supposed to be good at, like “how do you expect to run this operation properly if your balance sheet leaves out most of your assets?”

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.

10 thoughts on “More on how museums [under]use their collections”

  1. My guess is that a lot of what you describe can be explained by a good primatologist. (I kind of think that about a lot of our problems.) One way to get power is to control access and make things rare. Nothing is as cosy as being in the in-crowd. That is where money and popularity and careers come from. Congress being a hotbed of same, I don't know that it will want reform, but I hope you're right.

    Funny you mention LACMA. Guess who wants to tear down a bunch of perfectly good buildings for a fancypants new one? (They *claim* that there is a $300 million deferred maintenance problem on the existing ones. Haven't heard of any independent review.) Naturally the new blob will go overbudget and they will raise admission prices, no doubt. Our county overlords have already signed on to the thing, perhaps mostly because of prestige — but, perhaps for more nefarious reasons:
    <a href=",d.b2w” target=”_blank”>…” target=”_blank”>,d.b2w

    At least today, I don't wish harm to any of them, but couldn't they just be honest for once? "We don't actually need a new building, but I am trying to keep up with the other museum directors in New York." How refreshing it would be? This town seems so crooked. How come no one else here ever complains about where they live? Do you all live in … hmm, where is a place where the rich don't run things? Maybe Scandinavia?

  2. I wish you would consider the possibility that your idea to sell museum collections in order to achieve other purposes is a really, really bad idea which would pretty quickly destroy most American museums so the public would end up with no art to see, rather than lots of not very good art not on public view.

    Once politicians realize that there is a pot of money available for any use, they will take it and spend it. Once art not on view becomes a pot of money, it will be sold. To the benefit of politicians, wealthy contributors, and art dealers and experts, but to the benefit of the public? Are you really that naive? Many public museums are supported by the city or county they are in with regard to building maintenance and security. But that can be paid for by selling art. They (as you point out) get a break with fire and police services as they (generally) do not pay local taxes. But they have art to sell. (And some of that art is by homosexuals, communists and other undesirables. Now that it can be sold for the public good, why keep it?)

    You say that FASB if applied to museums would require that they report the value of their collections. This is a lie. FASB requires that inventories be reported at LOWER OF COST OR MARKET. That is, all those Monets in Chicago, inherited from their grandmothers would be valued according to FASB rules in the tens of thousands, not in the millions. You give an estimate of the value of the Art Institute of Chicago's collection at 26 to 45 billion dollars. What exactly is this estimate (you never say). I am guessing it it the sum of the auction estimates (lower and higher) for each piece (at least a statistical sample). If the entire collection were sold, would that amount be raised? Very unlikely. The market would be flooded. When their 60000 prints went on the block, most would be sold for the value of the paper (and bleached and reused, just as Italian primitives were burned for the gold leaf in the 19th century).

    Why do right wingers like your idea? They hate public provision and the taxes necessary to support them. Selling the collection would allow further reductions of taxes on the rich (small, but anything is worthwhile).

    Here is another idea: if they just sold 10000 acres of Yosemite, they could have free admission (currently $20 per car) forever. Why not. What is 10000 acres in a park as big as Yosemite?

    (There are many more errors in your ideas about museums but I have gone on too long, but at least a consideration by you of t6he downside of your proposals would be welcome as you seem to think there are none.)

    1. FASB specifically permits collections not to be valued at all; there was a big fight about it a couple of decades ago and the wrong side won. In any case, the collection is not an inventory, it's a capital asset. Generally, assets may be valued by any consistent rule (cost or market, for example) but the rule has to make sense and treating gifts as zero doesn't, especially in this case. Lesser of cost of market makes sense for a firm that does not acquire inventory for free, but may need to recognize depreciation to below cost owing to obsolescence or whatever.
      Your slippery slope argument suggests you don't trust museum trustees, politicians, etc. to manage public resources honestly or efficiently. Maybe that's correct, but can concealing the facts (and the art!) really be the best way to protect ourselves from this nest of vipers?

      1. I do not particularly trust politicians. What in history makes you trusting. I never suggested that art works be valued at 0. I suggested they be valued at their value at the time of acquisition, which is how I read FASB. The transient current value seems less interesting to me.

        You still have not said where the value you ascribe comes from. Am I right that it is the estimated low/high auction estimate for the whole collection, and thus an estimate of the realizable value? If not, what is it? If so, shouldn't we use an actual realizable value (less 25% for fees and management costs associated with sales, and less quite a bit because the sale would flood the market?

        I wish you would do some actual research and yourself be more honest about what you are talking about. Does the 5% figure come from the whole collection or just paintings and sculpture (which are what most casual readers associate with museum collections)? Most of the number in collections are prints and drawings, decorative arts, etc. some of which are destroyed by long exhibition, some of which are very fragile. If we focus in painting and sculpture, then please tell us what the actual cycle is. You report San Francisco has 4 Monet's and 1 is not on display. Actually they have 5 and all are on display (just went and looked at them). Snapshots are not informative. A better descriptions would be: number of works essentially always on display; number rotated on and off display regularly; number occasionally displayed; number never displayed. Then we would have a better idea of what the real issues are. What in fact are the never displayed worth? (And how many are copies, forgeries, previously misattributed, etc.?)

        I also wish you would acknowledge that tastes change and things now with low value come back into fashion and are brought up from storage (for example Sargent's Carnation Lily Lily Rose ( was in storage for years and is used on the museum's promotional material.)

        I wish you would acknowledge that museum staff might have plans and ideas. The Crocker museum in Sacramento CA built a new wing that doubled or tripled their exhibition space. They had no trouble filling the new galleries, which means they had lots of stuff in the basement before, stuff you presumably would have sold off years ago.

        But most of all, I wish you would get off the accountant's view of what museums are for. In an earlier discussion, if I am remembering correctly, you criticized the Metropolitan museum for buying an Italian renaissance painting for $100,000,000 (or so) because: that is 5 million a year at normal interest rates, no more than 50,000 people can possible see the painting in any meaningful way in a year, so the museum is effectively spending $100 per view. Ridiculous! But taking that point to heart means there can never be any great (with value being a proxy for great) art on public display, because there can never be more than 50,000 meaningful views a year, so any value greater than 1,000,000 is more than $1.00 per view and that is equally ridiculous. Indeed, it is hard to see that any public provision for enjoyment is justified ever. You did not answer my question about selling part of Yosemite. Why not? The whole park could go for billions, maybe a trillion dollars. They we won't be wasting resources.

  3. Time for a link to Callum. This very ordinary (but not actually bad) portrait of a terrier hangs, to the embarassment of the curators, near the entrance to the National Gallery of Scotland.

    The website explains:

    Callum was a Dandie Dinmont terrier owned by Mr James Cowan Smith who bequeathed £55,000 to the Scottish National Gallery in 1919. This enormous amount formed an important trust fund for acquisitions. His bequest had two conditions: the first that the Gallery provided for his dog Fury, who survived him; the second that Emms’ picture of his previous dog Callum should always be hung in the Gallery.

    Mr. Smith clearly had very good taste in Edinburgh lawyers, as the Gallery has probably been trying to get round the condition for 96 years.

    See also my stillborn cunning scheme to swap an unseen Cézanne in the White House collection for Stuart's portrait of George Washington's slave cook, now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid: an okay work as a piece of art, true in either location. but historically far more valuable in Washington.

    The art museum's proposed purpose of "engagement with art" has to be interpreted quite widely. The National Portrait Gallery in London is an interesting test case. It picks pictures by the importance of the subject as well as intrinsic quality. Quite minor courtiers of Henry VIII like Richard Southwell make the cut, painted with icy realism by Holbein. The only portrait they have on display of John Donne is terrible, but it's in because of the poetry and sermons. The atmosphere is incidentally much more popular and unstuffy than the National Gallery next door.

  4. BTW, a comment on divaricatum's "previously misdattributed", as if that automatically excuses consignment to oblivion. Professsionals attach too much importance to this. Authorship is a rough guide to quality and a help to understanding, sure. But if the National Portrait Gallery followed the principlee that visitors go to see Holbeins, they would have left the magnificent Southwell porteait in the cellars, as they think the painting is a very skilful contemporary copy.

    This reattribution is itself incredible on commonsense grounds, Using Schama's argument in a similar case of a Rembrandt self-portrait now excluded from the canon on narrow technical grounds, you have to ask: who was the supremly talented artist we've never heard of active at the same time as Rembrandt or Holbein, who never produced anything else? In Southwell's case, there is the additional factor of the character of the sitter. History confirms the portrait: he was a ruthless hatchet-man of Thomas Cromwell's, skilful enough to survive his patron's fall. Would a careerist prepared to betray a childhood friend, the Earl of Surrey, on a treason charge, have been fobbed off with a copy or work by an assistant? Holbein wasan't a fool, and you watch your step with such men.

    1. Speaking of Cromwell, can anyone suggest a good bio or social history of that time? I was surprised how much I enjoyed "Wolf Hall" on PBS, and it made me want to know how accurate it was. (Don't feel the need to tell me here and now if it will take too long or if folks aren't in the mood, esp as it is off-topic — but a point in the right direction would be great. Pretty fascinating time.)

    2. so you know that Southwell never wanted a copy of his portrait made to give to a relative or friend or patron, and no such copy was ever made, and so for that reason the painting in th NPG must be the original Holbein? Very interesting but how do you know? Anyway, why would anyone be surprised that a portrait gallery would be interested in the best portrait available while an art gallery would be interested in the best art available?

      But my point was that mr. O'hare is making claims about the value of the works of art in storage at the Art Institue of Chicago. I am asking that he back these claims up not with statistical hand waving but actual analysis. Looking just at European paintings pre WWII, how many do they have, how many are regularly on view, what is the realizable value of the rest?
      He says that selling just 1% by value would fund free admission and that seems about right if his 30 billion value is right. They earn about 11 million a year memberships and admission, 300 million would earn that roughly every year. OK. But exactly what would they sell? That seems a fair question. Looking just at European paintings, what would have to be sold to get the 1% by value? I am very doubtful that it would be just the paintings never on view but I could be wrong. I am just asking that he back up his claim. (My point about copies, forgeries, and misattributions was that they are not very valuable compared to the real thing. I presume mr. Wimberley agrees that the NPG would get less for the Southwell then for a undoubted Holbein.)

      My point that once you view collections as a source of funds for desirable purposes outside of obtaining other art works, I believe it becomes very hard to stop. Resources are always needed for many things. Budgets always need balancing. Leaks in the roof always need fixing. If you identify some portion of a museum's collection as surplus and funds from its sale available for other purposes, then pretty soon you will have nothing in storage. Should museums have nothing in storage? I wish mr. O'hare would tell us outright what his answer is.

  5. I wanted to make one more comment. Mr. O'hare included a table showing some cities whose museums have Monets and he gives the number possessed and the number not on display. Chicago (at the Art Institute) has 33 with, he said, 6 not on display. San Francisco (at the Legion of Honor) has 4 with 1 not on display. He did not say (that I could see) where the figures came from, but many readers seem to have misinterpreted 'not on display' to mean 'permanently in storage'. In particular, Ms Postrel, in the article favorably linked to in his note, says (after reproducing the table) "…while the Art Institute alone keeps six in storage. Maybe a museum in Florida would like to buy one and put it on display." She wrote her article on June 3. On that date, the Legion of Honor in San Francisco was in fact displaying all 4 of its Monets. And checking the Art Institute's website yesterday show they have 29 Monets on display (not 27). One not on display is "Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare" which in the last 21 years has appeared in 9 international exhibitions, so my guess is that it will soon be back on display. There are many reasons why a picture is not on display at a particular moment (conservation, research, on loan, gallery closure for renovation, gallery reuse for special exhibition, as well as no intention to ever show the work). Simply noting how many works by an artist happen not to be on view at a particular instant tells us little or nothing about its actual availability to the public in general and certainly does not justify the title of Ms Postrel's article "The Tragedy of the Monet in the Basement".

  6. I enjoyed your EconTalk segment.
    If I could encourage you to take even more radical view, I might suggest that museums set up public or private secure rental areas. In Oxford, we live with our art. We should integrate art in our lives, rather than keep it separate in art prisons.
    Happy to work with on social cost benefit analysis of something like that!
    Thanks again for the podcast!

Comments are closed.