Museum in financial crisis, woop woop woop

Robin Pogrebin raises the alarm: the Met is cutting staff and putting off building plans! Look for cutbacks on the art side, “staff reductions [and] reduced programming”, and more effort on the not-much-to-do-with-art side, “a concerted effort to increase revenue in its restaurants and retail operations”. The deficit forcing these painful compromises is really scary, ten million dollars a year and going up.  Why, you only have to look at their financial reports to see flashing lights everywhere; this enormous institution has an asset base of only about $4b and more than half of that is restricted.

Wait a minute; $4b? The Met has a collection worth at least $60 billion, thousands and thousands of objects almost none of which (by object count or square feet of picture) is ever shown or ever will be.  It’s not in their balance sheet, perhaps because if it were, Pogrebin might ask awkward questions about it.  Selling just two percent (off the bottom by quality or importance, of course, and much more than two percent of it by object count), for example, could endow free admission forever. Selling .3 percent would cover that pesky deficit, also forever.  And the smaller museums and collectors who would buy works freed from the catacombs would show it.

Nothing in the Met’s mission statement suggests its purpose is to accumulate as much art as possible where no-one sees it. But the Met and all the other big art museums have insulated themselves from this sort of awkward question by writing a code of ethics that forbids any museum from selling anything except to buy more art.

Rich art lovers, don’t be suckered by hard-luck stories like the one Pogrebin uncritically retails.  Do not give a penny or so much as a tiny watercolor to any museum that doesn’t recuse itself from this provision of the AAMD rules.  When a couple of big ones like the Met show some leadership, things will change, and our engagement with art will improve in many ways.

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.

12 thoughts on “Museum in financial crisis, woop woop woop”

  1. Shameless advert here for my Cunning Plan to swap one of the eight White House Cézannes for Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington's cook in the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid. Win-win you would think, but the idea has sunk without trace. If it helps I'll withdraw my fee of an invitation to the handover junket. However, the real obstacle to the deal is the Smaug-like idolatry of the Collection.
    Smaug Sketch

  2. Michael, if this blogsite had a thumbs-up icon to give out "Likes" for a post, I'd spend the morning opening new accounts under different names so I could give your post twenty or thirty Likes.

    Unfortunately, withholding donations will be essentially invisible, or at least ineffectual, for most of us who are not known to be high-dollar patrons suddenly stopping our support. We need do something more active in order to be effective in promoting the change. Do you think a petition might have an effect, or do I need to awaken the angry hippie sleeping in me for forty years, grow a beard and long hair, and go marching with a sign?

  3. Michael, after I posted the above comment, I went back and reread your post, and I had a "waitaminit" moment to match yours.

    The U.S. Treasury buys old currency from banks, bills that are worn and decrepit, replacing them with new currency that's crisp, bright, and suitable for birthday gifts for the grandchildren. Those old bills are gone forever from the public eye. It's not because of any "code of ethics," per se, but it meets the criterion of at least not being unethical.

    The art museums that put art in the basement, never to be seen again, are doing the equivalent of buying perfectly good new bills from banks, withdrawing them forever from circulation, and making their payments as an electronic deposit of additional demand deposits in some data base. The amount of art "in circulation" is permanently decreased. And rationalizing, as a part of a "code of ethics," the failure to make those works of art available through sale sounds like something out of 1984 (the book, not the year).

  4. So libraries can "deaccession" stuff but museums can't? Oy. Also, the idea of fewer and fewer curators and conservators supposedly taking care of a larger and larger trove of stuff that no one sees…

    If I were to bother giving money to the Met or someone like them, it would be for at least scanning every item in their non-display area and making it available to people.

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