The root of most, if not all, evil

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Money. (No, I’m not going to start singing Pink Floyd.) When you see the world solely in terms of it, things go awry.

My eye was caught by a column on Bloomberview.com by Virginia Postrel, posted on June 3rd. I was so troubled by it that I went back to the article that is the root of the matter, by Michael O’Hare in the spring 2015 issue of the journal Democracy. Ms. Postrel is a columnist for Bloomberg; Mr. O’Hare a is professor of public policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, UC Berkeley. Their assertion – really O’Hare’s assertion, as Ms. Postrel does little but recap it – is that works of art currently languishing in museum basements would be better off being sold, the revenue put to make the museum’s bottom line healthier and give collectors more art to buy. Or something like that. The benefits to museums are better elucidated than those to collectors. There are too many points on which I disagree to list them all here: these are just highlights, of that is the right term.

I will highlight one item from Postrel’s summary, as she encapsulates the problem (unwittingly) better than O’Hare:

“In all of Florida, O’Hare points out, there are only two Monet paintings, while the Art Institute alone keeps six in storage. Maybe a museum in Florida would like to buy one and put it on display.”

I refer the reader to auction results in the last few years, and how super-rich individuals have gradually been pricing museums out of the market. If you have an extraneous Monet on hand – probably the first time that phrase has ever been used – why accept less money for it from another museum when a billionaire can shell out really big $$? What happens is that the Monet goes into private hands, and the smaller museum is left with the Monets it had at the start.

Now for some of O’Hare’s mistakes:

“The Met, for example, shows 27 of its 41 Monets, but only three out of its 13 Eugène Boudins. When it comes to engravings and drawings, the ratios fall dramatically: For example, none of the Met’s 134 etchings, and only two of its 23 drawings, by Fragonard are on display.”

No surprise that Monet has the upper hand: good as Boudin was, he was not a game-changer like Monet. O’Hare gives no reason why he singled out Fragonard, neither does he note the fragility of works on paper that require them to be kept out of the light and exhibited only for short periods. He is comparing apples and oranges at best. And he almost wanders from his topic in his next sentence:

“If it really damages the experience of a painting to see it any closer to its neighbor (recent museum practice has been to greatly increase the spacing between works, and never “sky” them one above the other), more art for the public would mean building more galleries and expanding museum buildings.”

If by “recent museum practice” he means 50 years or more of installations, which have shown unequivocally that a work at eye level is better appreciated than one you have to crane your neck to see, well, I hardly know what to say. He closes this argument with the assumption that 100% of a museum’s collection must be on display, no matter how large the collection (or how fragile the work?) which is a near-impossibility.

“A code of ethics is a good thing, but it isn’t a law of God or nature.”

Thank goodness, as laws of God or nature are often cited when speaking of something preying upon something else. Codes of ethics are about fairness. Business…not so much.

“Is this patrimony distributed so as to create the most art engagement value possible?”

A: It’s not exactly patrimony. What we see is a capitalist distribution, in which the best bank account can buy the best collection. Curious that O’Hare is suggesting a market-based capitalist solution to what he sees (but does not identify) as a capitalist problem/

“No museum known to me recognizes its art collection on its balance sheet.”

Collection value is monitored, but not on balance sheet because it is not something to be – another horrid business term – “monetized.” The balance sheet covers moneys coming in and out, and changes to infrastructure.

Another unsupported statement: “People don’t buy original art and lose or mistreat or hide it – they almost always show it and care for it.” With the increase in recent decades of art being bought as an investment, there’s reason to worry about such a statement. Many people do buy art to show it, and care for it as best they can. But to buy something from a museum takes big money, effectively taking the work out of circulation, even if there is a “right to borrow the works back now and then” clause.

“A nice amendment to the tax code would require the IRS to reduce the appraised value of donated art to reflect any restrictions, including restrictions on sale. This would at least make collectors think twice about demanding them.”

Okay, this I agree with, even lthough he is offering it as part of a justification for museums to sell off parts of their collections. I have seen the results of donor demands, and most anything that can curtail a collector’s ego is a good thing.

“What hasn’t happened, but is underway, is the release of painting, print, and drawing collections from their storage vaults into the digitized cloud (sculpture is a different story). When it happens, it will be less of a problem that big museums show so little of their collections “live,” and the opportunities for creative and enriched modes of engagement will have expanded enormously. But crucially, it will be less important for a museum to actually possess (for possible research study) works it doesn’t show.”

That starts off well, then wanders back into…someplace. At heart is O’Hare’s seemingly limited understanding of art history. Our knowledge of art continually changes, grows and morphs. The work that sits un-admired in a museum basement for decades is re-evaluated and discovered to be by another artist, or from a pivotal period in an artists work. It becomes more important. Directors and curators bring new emphases to a museum’s program. Sell off the wrong piece, and a museum could be regretting it ever after. Not everything would fall under this category, but what would a scholar say if s/he came to the Met to write a dissertation on technique and materials in Fragonard’s etchings only to be told, “Sorry, but here are all the people we sold them to. Maybe they’ll let you go look. Maybe not”?

“The big David Hockney exhibition at San Francisco’s de Young Museum that I saw last year was full of the artist’s experiments with synchronized videos, iPad drawing, and the like, mostly well-documented and explained. But it also included Hockney’s 30 riffs on Claude Lorrain’s “Sermon on the Mount”—with no image of the Lorrain anywhere to be seen. Not educated enough to bring it up in memory, I had to find it on the Web on my phone. No, the original of 1656 is not copyrighted. The unspoken message is, if you don’t have the Lorrain original in your head, you’re not really qualified to be here.”

Just. Plain. Wrong. The unspoken message is that the curators and education department fell down on the job. Did they perhaps have difficulty getting a photo of the Lorrain from the Frick? Not just any old photo will do if you are trying to present the work in proper context. That means a professional photo, properly color-balanced and suitable for reproduction, from the institution that owns the work. Did O’Hare visit early enough in the exhibition that not all the educational materials were in place, a situation which museums try to avoid but still happens now and then?

“Management failures usually start with governance failures, and museum boards are way too heavy on wealthy collectors and too light on psychologists, artists, educators, and science-museum curators. Board selection is a hermetic, self-replicating process focused on wealth and social status to the exclusion of expertise, judgment, and wisdom; Met director Thomas Hoving memorably captured this willful blindness with his immortal, “Any trustee should be able to write a check for at least $3 million and not even feel it.” Why don’t members elect a trustee or two to provide real guidance?”

Half right again. Management failures often involve the Board. However, Boards are usually the spearhead of fundraising, and so draw a preponderance of high-end donors. Trustees are selected and elected by already elected Trustees, so a People Like Us mentality is involved. But the fallacy is that Boards are there to provide guidance. Guidance is supposed to come from trained professionals – namely, because museums are educational and historical in nature – curators, educators and the Director. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but I’ll restate it: if your Board is running the museum, things are dysfunctional. And while electing artists to the Board is a good thing, artists are capable of being just as unwise, venal, and dysfunctional as any banker or magnate.

“Museums that have not estimated their collection value and reported it should not be eligible for NEA grants.”

Bad. Reported to whom? There is a nasty undercurrent, which I hope is just my cynicism, that unless anyone can get the figures on how much a museum is worth (O’Hare seems to think that the government doesn’t know, but he offers no proof of that) it isn’t being honest.

“Museum culture is deep and ingrained. Realizing the latent value in our patrimony will, finally, require a public that asks our institutions, graciously but insistently, whether they are using the priceless resources they have been given to serve the public interest as well as possible.”

That phrase “the latent value of our patrimony” is the key. As I said way back at the top of this post – Money. Unless museums, which are non-profits, can make the biggest bucks out of their assets, even to the point of selling them off, they’re somehow dishonest. I say bullshit.

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