I tell my students, and only somewhat flippantly, that arts policy is the most important policy arena. Seriously? Well, most people think health policy is right up there—but why live longer if life isn’t worth living? And if you don’t think government has a lot to do with whether and how you can engage with art, you just don’t understand the situation.
Think about a world in which our great paintings and sculpture are mostly on view instead of where they actually are, which is mostly locked up in the basements and warehouses of a handful of our largest museums. In which you didn’t have to go to one of a half-dozen big cities to see them, and didn’t rush through an enormous museum for a whole day because you paid so much to get in. In which you weren’t constantly afraid that you aren’t entitled to what you see, or competent to engage with it. That world is actually within reach, and the main reason we don’t have it is that the people to whom we have entrusted our visual arts patrimony have nailed each other’s feet to the floor so they can’t move toward it, and done so with the tacit approval and even collaboration of government.
Big museums have long refused to recognize their unexhibited collections of duplicates and minor works as a financial resource. As a consequence, they are wasting value by keeping these works hidden. If they were redistributed to smaller institutions, and even to private collectors and businesses, they would fund an explosion of the value for which we have museums in the first place: people looking at art and getting more out of it when they do.
The story will wind its way through accounting rules, professional ethics, and tax policy, but we can start right in a museum. This is such a conventional ritual that it requires conscious effort to realize how many things about it could be different, and maybe should be. Let’s do a field trip and look around!
A Museum Field Trip
We arrive during regular business hours or on a weekend, as the museum is open evenings only once a week. The building looks a lot like a temple, and is probably situated like one, in a park or up on a hill. We walk in past a wall of names that no one is looking at. Famous artists? No—donors. Every name on this wall records a financial transaction—but what exactly was sold in those deals? Strangely, though anywhere from a third to 90 percent of the millions of dollars acknowledged here is actually tax money, not private funds, the government and the taxpayers aren’t listed.
Usually there’s no less museum for anyone else if we go in, but this visit is going to cost some serious coin (though we didn’t pay anything when we visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington). The posted tariff offers the same thing at different prices to different people, as well as quantity-discounted admission with a newsletter subscription. This is called a “membership,” though it doesn’t entitle us to vote on anything.
We take a floor plan and perhaps an audio guide, and plunge into a maze of galleries without windows or clocks, an environment as disorienting as a Las Vegas casino. Of course, the galleries are full of art….Well, not actually full, as the paintings are spaced across the walls rather loosely. Through the rooms people (mostly women) come and go, talking occasionally in hushed tones of Michelangelo, and texting. Visitors look at each work for about six seconds, bobbing in and out to read tiny labels with an almost random selection of information. Some galleries have explanatory panels introducing the ensemble on view, with text that may be historical or biographical, may be in art-criticalese jargon or at the most elementary, introductory level, but is always laudatory and enthusiastic about the work on view: Everything here is absolutely superb.
The art is sorted by place, medium, and date of origin. At about 1900, we experience either relief or anxiety on realizing that decoding symbols (is St. Jerome the one with the lion, or the arrows?) is no longer useful, and we start to see things and images that don’t seem to be about—or of—anything, and that we would never realize are art if they weren’t in a museum. We might chat among ourselves about the art, but our engagement is quite one-way. At a concert we can at least applaud; at a restaurant we actually eat the food; at a gallery the art is for sale; and at the science museum we can touch and pick things up.
We’ve been on our feet for three hours now, though we did occasionally find a bench. Let’s go sit down and have lunch! The restaurant menu radiates educated upper-middle class: We can get a latte, but not a hot dog. What’s that—you’re tired and maxed out? We could leave and come back tomorrow, but then we’d have to pay another admission charge. So we keep going and try to see it all.
On the way out is a store selling an immense variety of things, of which not one would qualify for display in the museum, though all have something to do with art. Lots of books, and lots of tchotchkes. Art supplies, with which we could make something ourselves, are always in the children’s section.
Not everything of interest is obvious here, especially what we can’t see. We didn’t see art being made, or learn anything about how that happens. (What’s silverpoint, again? Giclée?) We didn’t see the wheels of the art world turning (dealers, auctions, collectors, artists, and critics); indeed, one would infer from a museum that what we are looking at has nothing to do with either the business of art or the process of making it. For every object on view, another 20 are in storage; almost none will ever be displayed. And, perhaps most important, we didn’t see the 80 percent of the population who didn’t go to an art museum at all in the last year.
What Are Museums For?
An art museum is a business, often a big one, but a special kind. In the United States, almost all of them are tax-exempt, educational nonprofits, with unique privileges given in return for certain kinds of social value; in other countries, they are typically government agencies, though this difference in legal form has minimal effect on their behavior. In both cases, they get to spend tax money. Either public money is appropriated directly, or, in the American system, contributions to museums are tax-deductible, and each gift carries a public subsidy. Furthermore, museums are typically exempt from state and local taxes, even though they receive the usual services of the fire and police departments, sidewalks, and the like.
They are also charged to care for the physical art objects that embody civilization and culture. Of course, science, literature, political institutions, religions, and performing arts are cultural storehouses too, but the plastic arts are unique in being at risk of loss by physical destruction. Losing the autograph score of Bach’s Mass in B minor would be a pity, but there are lots of copies adequate to perform it from; the loss of the Athena Parthenos was forever.
To think about how art museums could do their job better, we need a better idea of what that job is beyond just “owning art and showing some of it.” In his 1979 book, The Art Museum: Power, Money, Ethics, journalist Karl Meyer could write, “Since the turn of the century, museum professionals themselves have been trying to define the nature of the art museum,” and things have not been much clarified since. Museum mission statements are all over the map. The most common words (after art) in a 2011 survey of mission statements were: collect, museum, program, exhibit, cultural, educate, public, artist, and (oddly) words. The verbs here describe the behaviors of the museum, not the visitors (educate/exhibit, but not learn/see). With a very few interesting exceptions—of which my favorite is the Detroit Institute of Arts’ deliciously terse “Creating experiences that help each visitor find personal meaning in art”—these statements describe what museums undertake to do, but say almost nothing about what they expect to accomplish for their audiences. There is a lot of attention to making art accessible but little about art actually being accessed, or what happens to visitors who seize those opportunities.
What about visual cues? Well, reviewing the home and “about” pages of major American museums, I found only three showing anything other than art from the collection or the building from the outside. Detroit’s “about” illustration is distinctive and notable: It has young people looking at one of the Rivera murals (which we see only in a sidelong, partial view), guided by a docent who is not just talking but using her whole body. It is a picture of engagement with art, not just having art. In contrast are the Met’s aerial shot of people milling about in an enormous lobby, which could have been taken in Grand Central Station, and the Art Institute of Chicago’s picture of staff and the back of a large canvas.
I think the extremely abstract and passive presence of the museum’s public in these statements is an important and symptomatic failing, and I propose a different assignment: The purpose of an art museum is more, better engagement with art. Anything a museum does that can’t be connected back to this goal is peripheral and incidental.
Of course, this short version hides multiple dimensions of performance. “More” can entail more people looking at the art, looking at it for longer times, and looking at more, as well as more kinds of, art. Recently, museums have realized that “more” should also mean more kinds of people, especially across ethnic and social class categories. Half of people with graduate degrees went to art museums last year, but only 10 percent of high school graduates; 24 percent of whites went, but only 12 percent of blacks. And museums properly think about people in a very long future, most not yet born, and almost neurotically protect their collections for those future viewers from fire, flood, umbrellas, humidity changes, and finger oil.
“Better” is the more interesting part of my recipe. Perception, science has shown, is an active process. The only art engagement that matters is created inside the head of a viewer who combines a visual (in this case) stimulus from an artist’s work with a whole library of prior experiences and knowledge, ideas (not always art ideas) that “come to mind” (not always the conscious mind) when she confronts something presented as art. Better engagement results from presentation and installation, including mundane matters like lighting, air conditioning, and whether you can actually get to the work through a crowd. It also results from managing the library of experience that you open up and “see” the work with, including how today’s engagement with a painting (and its explanatory label, and its neighbors on the wall) enriches your engagement with an upcoming lifetime of art experiences.
Better engagement is what justifies the research function as well. People have a different experience of a work when they know who made it, whom he or she studied with, who commissioned and owned it, and how an engraving gets on paper. Better engagement puts the museum in the business of making a more competent and more demanding arts public. (Because this process is lifelong, it can’t merely be delegated to the schools, though the current savaging of arts education in K-12 schools is a tragedy, and a blunder, that we have to leave for another discussion.)
My simple goal statement already entails a variety of ways to make a better museum, and forces attention to ruthless trade-offs. For example, it may be easier to get a lot of people to come to the museum to see work that professional judgment thinks ephemeral or even schlocky, or for a bunch of wrong reasons (pornographic edginess, or high auction prices), but they can’t have a better experience if they don’t come at all. Works on paper have a finite lifetime of exposure to light, so every minute they are displayed is a minute they are denied to future generations. No simple formula can be confidently applied to optimize a museum’s discharge of its responsibilities, but steering by the “more, better engagement” star is useful.
Museums may have economic development benefits, attracting Richard Florida’s creative class, and they have served economic elites as indicators of status and distinction for generations. They are certainly good for curators’ children’s orthodontia, and a museum retrospective directs a Niagara of money into the pockets of an artist and her dealer. But all these are incidental and, as we will see, sometimes at odds with the point of a museum. The ball to keep our eye on, again, is arts engagement.
What Should We Want More Of?
How could museums do more and better? Well, for “more,” they could show more of the art they have. Any top-rank museum exhibits no more than a twentieth of its collection, often much less. There is some rotation in and out of storage but, as a rule of thumb, consider the least distinguished object in a gallery, and you can be sure that there are one or two just a teeny bit inferior, and a dozen nearly as good, in a warehouse or the basement. 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. 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.
Second, for “better” engagement, museums could have educational programs that, as a nurse grad student of mine once said, “start where the patient is” and begin before the visitor leaves home. Enjoy history? Here’s how this painting explains it, and why it happened when and where it did. Basement woodworker? Here’s how they made the inlays in this chest. Religious? This painting is a theological tract, and here’s how it works. Political lefty? Let me introduce you to George Grosz. Think you might want to own original art? Here’s how to start.
Unfortunately, most museums are in very straitened financial circumstances, and all this costs a lot of money. The recession hit them hard, with charitable giving and government support cut way back and operating expenses hard to reduce. Ideas like these are pipe dreams, right?
Well, no. To understand why, we need to look at some museum financials, almost all of which are online as part of their annual reports. Take a look at the typical museum’s balance sheet asset column. There’s the building itself—worth millions, but it’s pointless to talk about selling that. Furniture and equipment? Not much there, and we’re using it. Endowment? Only a few dozen millions, and the whole point of an endowment is to grow it, earn some income, and hold it for safety, not to cash it in. Tractor to mow the lawn? Now we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel.
But wait a minute. Where’s the art? Incredibly, it’s not there. No museum known to me recognizes its art collection on its balance sheet. When it buys a painting, there’s an expense, and then it just disappears, as though they bought lunch for everyone and ate it. This might not matter if the amounts were small, but they are actually quite breathtaking. I have estimated the value of the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) by triangulating in various ways from a couple of the rare cases in which museum collections were actually appraised (Detroit and the Berkeley Art Museum). The 280,000 objects in its collection turn out to be worth between $26 billion and $43 billion.
This finding has dilated the pupils of everyone I have ever shared it with. “How much??! Wow, what would the Met’s number be? The Louvre’s?” A common management assessment of a firm is “return on equity” (ROE). This is roughly the net value the firm creates each year, divided by the net assets it holds, comparable conceptually to the interest on a loan or the gain from an investment. We can make a coarse calculation of this kind for a museum by valuing the visitor-hours and research it provides in a year (with caution; these cost-benefit-analysis valuation techniques are always approximations). In the case of the AIC, the ROE is less than 1 percent. As the AIC is a wonderful museum in many ways (go there!), this is in no way a worst or even a bad case—but no established private firm would be allowed to stay in business, or keep its management, if that’s all it could earn with the resources investors (that’s us, citizens) entrusted to it. Private firms, when they get up and running, have to promise ROE numbers in the 5 percent range to get people to give them control of resources, and a big museum is not a startup deliberately running a high burn rate to set up big profits in the future. Of course, this kind of talk feels like rough and untrained hands being laid on the precious beating heart of immortal and ineffable art, so let’s leave it at this: Knowing the monetary value of a large museum’s collection raises very salient questions about how that resource is actually being used, and whether that use is the best it can do.
Accordingly, the most important policy reform museums need is for the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), a private organization that establishes the rules accountants have to use, to require them to value their collections and report them as assets. And if the FASB doesn’t do this (an attempt to do so a couple of decades ago failed), state attorneys general, who oversee nonprofits, should do it, not to mention museum trustees, who cannot responsibly oversee their institutions without this information. The excuses for this omission are that it would be a big bother to appraise a large collection, and as the museum never intends to use the art as a financial resource by selling any or borrowing against it, there’s no point. But simply asserting that those 134 Fragonard etchings have no monetary value doesn’t make it true: If you call a dog’s tail a leg, it still has four legs, and the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection was absolutely on the table as a financial asset in the city’s bankruptcy. What if the refusal to value collections were relaxed? How could placing a valuation on those enormous collections create more, better engagement with art?
Given that so little of it is ever exhibited or ever will be, maybe we could start at the bottom and sell some stuff out of storage that has no real prospect of being shown. What would that buy? Selling just 1 percent of the collection by value—much more than 1 percent by object count—would enable the AIC to endow free admission forever. You read that right: free admission forever, on the sale of just 1 percent—with a nice lagniappe of reduced storage expenses, to boot. Free is the right price for a nonrival good (you’re not displacing anyone else) like attending a museum that isn’t congested, and makes it much easier for people to engage with art in a sane way, a couple of hours at a time (better engagement!). As it happens, the AIC triggered a big debate recently when it raised prices to pay for its new building (adult general admission is now $23). When the British national museums went to free admission in 2001, attendance more than doubled—more engagement!
How much should museums charge for admission? As I suggested, the main reason the price should usually be zero rests on the most fundamental normative principle of economics: Everything should be sold at marginal cost. If a museum isn’t congested, the marginal cost of one more visitor is a little wear on the floor and a few cents worth of air conditioning; unlike a seat in a concert hall, it doesn’t deprive anyone else of the chance to visit. Note that this principle is technical, and is neither a moralistic assertion that art is priceless or besmirched by money, nor a political judgment. If you wake up a Chicago economist and a lefty progressive in the middle of the night, they both say, “Marginal cost pricing!”
Farebox revenue is hard to give up, but to make it easier for a low-income public to attend, some museums have adopted a “pay what you wish” approach (with very heavy-handed suggestions as to amount). Is it psychologically easier to attend if you’re made to feel like a charity case? And why ask people to estimate the value of the experience before they have it? It would be relatively easy to do experiments to let visitors decide how much to pay as they leave and see what happens. I did that once, many years ago, for a special exhibition with an extra charge, and revenues were substantially higher than when visitors were charged going in.
If the museum is so crowded that your visit interferes with someone else’s—and a few like MoMA, the Louvre, and the Uffizi are in that state—then it’s appropriate to charge admission that will ration access by price (and subsidize attendance for those who can’t afford the fee). But it would be much better to expand the museum! When a lot of new families move to town, we don’t start auctioning seats in class, we build more public schools. Going back to our AIC example, selling another percent of the museum’s collection would pay for 30 percent more exhibition space (either where it is now, or in a big satellite somewhere), to actually show us more art.
Let’s go crazy and sell another percent—that would endow $17 million a year of operating budget, a fifth of the institute’s current “instructional and academic” staff costs, which would enable it hire to something on the order of 200 more full-time researchers, educators, designers, and people studying the audience to understand what really goes on when people get up close to art. All this, and the AIC would still be sitting on 97 percent of the value of its current stockpile, but showing a third more of it, and better.
In business language, we could say that the AIC has drastically misallocated its capital resources between the assets of “building” and “art,” and also misallocated resources between production (the staff) and capital. Idling capital is a waste, just like idling labor, and if done in secret as it is here, may even justify associated charges of fraud and abuse.
If you open this discussion with museum people, as I have done, you find out very quickly that you have walked into a hornet’s nest called the “deaccessioning debate.” Deaccessioning is fancy art language for selling, and the first thing the director you have provoked will tell you about is the museum directors’ code of ethics, which forbids him to ever sell art except to buy more art. If he did, he could never lend anything to other museums or borrow any art from them. He probably couldn’t have coffee with his pals at the next convention either: outer darkness, and how appropriate for unethical behavior.
Of course, this code was not brought down a mountain by Moses; the directors themselves made it up. A code of ethics is a good thing, but it isn’t a law of God or nature. Once upon a time, the lawyers’ code of ethics forbade them to advertise. Now it doesn’t; the republic and the bar endure. The museum directors’ code says, “Gifts and bequests should be unrestricted whenever possible,” in part because a donor’s restrictions on how a work is shown, or whether future judgment finds it deserving of display at all, lets donors short-circuit professional expertise forever. But important museums like the Met and the Stanford University collection have violated this rule spectacularly and haven’t been excommunicated, so maybe these ethical principles are not quite the moral absolutes they claim to be.
A piece-by-piece appraisal of a large collection is an enormous undertaking (though it was somehow accomplished fairly quickly for the Detroit museum) and the cost of such an exercise might justify omitting it from financial reporting. But it isn’t necessary to do this to get a useful estimate of the total value—say, plus-or-minus 10 percent. Things like art values have an exponential distribution, with a large percentage of the value in relatively few items. Museums know what their masterpieces are, and these few thousand items would have to be appraised individually. But the rest can be sampled by drawing randomly from accession numbers (every object has one) and actually appraising as little as 5 percent of the other works. This process is never perfect, but completely doable: Museums appraise individual objects when they insure them for loan exhibitions and (obviously) when they are offered art for purchase. Large companies value unique assets with thin markets, like buildings and patents, well enough to inform regulators and managers.
What the no-sale provision is good for is to protect the big old museums, which have collections far larger than they can ever show, from even thinking about having to share, or about operational changes like the ones described above. It’s about managerial comfort and institutional prestige, and has nothing to do with the public interest.
My colleague Eugene Smolensky asked rhetorically on reading an early draft of this essay, “If we could reallocate all the art across museums optimally, how much of it would wind up where it is now?” Museums like those in San Francisco, which were late to start seriously collecting while those in Eastern cities already had a half-century head start, can never catch up under current rules, while lots of art that smaller markets would kill for is locked up in the vaults of the Met and the AIC and their ilk. The existing allocation is interesting; here, for example, is the distribution of some Monet paintings in U.S. museums:
Is this patrimony distributed so as to create the most art engagement value possible? Is it fair? The small Harn Museum of Art in the college town of Gainesville, Florida, is so proud of its single Monet that it issued a reassuring press release when it was lent for four months to a temporary exhibition across the state in Naples; the AIC, on the other hand, sees fit to keep almost a fifth of its Monets in storage.
Deaccessioning and Its Discontents
The debate about selling from collections has been characterized by an unusual combination of naïveté, careless and tendentious language, and posturing. Without rehashing it all, let us note here, first, that works sold from the unexhibited collection of a museum are not “lost,” especially if they are sold to another museum. Indeed, even if they go to a collector’s private home, they will be seen by more people than when they were in the vaults; the same is true if they are bought by businesses for their offices—and these sales could reserve a right to borrow the works back now and then. (People don’t buy original art and lose or mistreat it or hide it—they almost always show it and care for it.) But garage sales by our overstocked, big-city major museums would mainly put important art on the walls (not in the basements) of museums in places where art is scarce. The reason I’m so interested in simply changing the accounting rules, so we can see these assets as we see the endowment, is that I expect sunshine to provoke a conversation in which simply asserting selling to be evil will have less force, and options like the ones I floated above will be in play.
If we establish that sold art doesn’t leave the planet or go into a landfill, defenders of the dog-in-the-manger approach will claim, “These paintings were given to us with the understanding that we would never sell them! And if we sell even unrestricted items, no one would ever give us anything again!” To which we may ask, “What will they do with it instead?” (And, “How much more art that you have no space to show do you really want?”) Art usually goes to museums when collectors’ heirs don’t want it. Here is where the tax code becomes important, along with the sociology of the big-time art world. A lot of paintings in museums were received as tax-deductible gifts, and the donor’s deduction is based on the full market value of the painting, even though no tax was paid on its appreciation in his hands. So giving a painting bought for $10,000 that could now be sold for $110,000, minus the $28,000 capital gains tax a wealthy donor would pay, costs the donor $82,000 (and thank you, certainly)—but earns him back a tax break of 39.6 percent (his marginal tax rate) of $110,000, or $43,560. So the gift actually only costs him $38,440; taxpayers pony up the rest. (Calculations for bequests under the estate tax are different; in general, that tax subsidy now only benefits the wealthiest collectors with multimillion-dollar estates.)
This whole arrangement may or may not be good public policy; in my book written with Alan L. Feld and J. Mark Schuster, Patrons Despite Themselves, we examine this question extensively and of course conclude, “It’s complicated!” But the charitable-contribution deduction is certainly not necessary to have museums, as it was nonexistent or de minimis when the great U.S. museums were being established, and is unimportant outside the United States, where there are lots of nice museums full of art. The part of the scheme that’s important here is that the donor gets the same deduction regardless of whether the work is given with a restriction on sale. This makes no economic or moral sense: A painting the museum is stuck with storing and protecting forever is simply worth less than a painting that may be sold, just as unrestricted money gifts are more valuable than gifts with strings attached. 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.
It would not control winks and nods, however: A collector might well shop his painting around to find a museum willing to make an unofficial agreement. We have to think about the sociological context of this deal-making, not just explicit rules, because donors gain social status by being able to say that they collected work fine enough to be accepted into “the collection of” the most prestigious museum that will take it. If museums established an ethical obligation to never assure retention, and made it clear that while gifts are welcome, restrictions really are against the rules, collectors would find it harder to play them against each other this way.
A bigger question is, why do large museums that can only show a fraction of what they already have (or even of the really good stuff), and that are increasingly besieged by visitors whose numbers in the space available seriously damage the art-engagement experience, continue to fight for acquisitions that would create much more value if dispersed to smaller “markets”? Why don’t they more effectively steer donors to give money for programs that put more people, more effectively, in front of more art? Eli and Edythe Broad, the 800-pound gorillas of the Los Angeles art scene, have a refreshingly different take here, explaining to the Los Angeles Times in 2008 why they gave the Los Angeles County Museum of Art dibs on borrowing (and ponied up for an enormous building expansion) but would not donate works:
….our job is to have our collection be seen by the broadest possible public. And with all due respect to the museums, they will only lend to their peers. LACMA will lend to the Met. They will lend to the Modern, to the Louvre, to the National Gallery. But they will not particularly make a point of lending to Knoxville, Portland, where they can’t get anything in return.
So we thought a lot about this and we said we’re gonna make this a public collection, and we’re going to favor LACMA. Whatever LACMA wants to have on their walls they can have on their walls for as long as they want to have it on their walls. But if they want to put it in the basement, we want to be able to have it shown elsewhere.
Governance and Policy
A century ago, art museums changed society’s relationship to art by spearheading the transition from private collecting by and for the rich and powerful into the modern public museum. Today, they can change that relationship again. The symphony and the opera don’t have the resources for such an enterprise, but museums do; what sort of innovations should we be demanding?
The most important opportunity is the explosive availability of art as very high-quality digital content, the revolution that has upended the worlds of music, drama, and text. Of course, original artworks will always trade in a separate market from reproductions, and seeing the “real thing” close-up is not the same as having a perfect image projected on your retina from a screen. But the second is not inferior to the first, just different and complementary, especially when it’s available on demand from a “custom-made” museum you can organize for yourself with a few clicks, out of works thousands of miles apart. The Google Cultural Institute serves up virtual walking tours of almost 500 museums around the world, with thousands of works available in very high resolution, actually higher than you can usually get standing in front of the real painting.
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.
Merely invoking technology or shoveling out more information can easily miss the mark; success is also a matter of attitude and empathy. When I worked in a museum, I had some troubling epiphanies, like the time the curator of a quarter-mile of decorative arts galleries, full of chairs with ropes across them and nowhere for a visitor to sit, interrupted my staff meeting presentation about seating to say, “Mike, I don’t know why we’re spending time on this; if I want to sit down, I can go to my office. I don’t need chairs in the galleries!”
I still remember being infuriated by the label on a pair of metal devices in a vitrine, etched in my memory as “Pair of objects for striking fire, with three lines of Qu’ranic script. They are beautifully made and invite our touch.” Okay, I’m an engineer and a shade-tree mechanic. You have my interest:How do you strike fire with them—hit them together? Rub? Did they hold flints? Do you use them together, or one at a time? What is “Qu’ranic script”—a calligraphic style, like Kufic? Is it a pedantic way to write what hoi polloi call “lines from the Quran”? And I understand why they’re under glass, but why, Mr. Curator, are you rubbing it in that you can touch them and I can’t? “Education” like this may be well-meaning, but it is inept.
I also had some eye-opening moments, such as when a curator would walk me through his galleries and just talk to me about the art. It’s really breathtaking how interesting these folks can make their stuff, and no, you don’t get it by reading their published work, or from the labels they write, or from the audio guide; it only happens when they aren’t looking over their shoulders at their peers and showing off how erudite they are. Everyone can’t have that kind of personal engagement, of course, but could we give every visitor something like it? I don’t want someone talking in my ear when I’m watching a play or listening to a string quartet, but this can happen right in front of a painting—what an opportunity!
As a visitor, I keep encountering missed opportunities and misfires, usually resulting from an insouciant unconcern for what would really enrich the experience for a typical visitor—that is, a visitor a museum should want to make repeated visits. 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. A few months later I ran into the original at the Frick, where it would have benefited greatly from association with a couple of Hockney’s covers (as reduced-size reproductions, of course). But while Hockney hasn’t slowed down for a minute at 77, the Frick has long been frozen in aspic. Here’s a wasted opportunity to put an important work into a context of artistic borrowing and exchange, and to make a centuries-old painting speak to a modern art lover.
Audio guides and smartphone apps, more and more common but still needing work, are the beginning of an exciting new way to engage with art. “Beginning,” because there’s plenty of headroom for improvement. A stellar Kandinsky exhibition at New York’s Neue Galerie had an audio guide, but I had to start up Spotify on my phone with earphones to associate his theater set designs for a “Pictures at an Exhibition” ballet with the respective parts of the music, which could perfectly well have been available on a headset on the wall next to each piece, or on the audio tour device. I know the music pretty well, but not well enough to be sure I wasn’t remembering “The Great Gate of Kiev” when I was looking at the old castle set. Much too often, the audio commentary itself is delivered in an off-putting academic style with a stuffy accent—a lecture from someone who would rather be somewhere else. Why can’t it be conversational, and share real enthusiasm and curiosity?
Getting with the tech revolution is not the only opportunity museums could seize by starting to use their enormous idle wealth responsibly. Real research about the visitor experience, which flowered briefly (mostly in science museums) between the 1930s and ’80s and then withered, could inform presentation so it actually works better, instead of just looking good to other curators and designers. At present, museums know very little about their audience and even less about the people who don’t attend. (Where, for example, did we get the bizarre idea that six seconds is the right amount of time to spend with a painting worth looking at—and isn’t it the responsibility of art museums to fix that?)
Building more space (and endowing its maintenance and operation) is an obvious path toward “more engagement,” at least for the people who attend now. What about those who don’t? Again, we need more research, but many of my students at a big public university simply don’t feel entitled, by background or competence, to art in a museum. When I take them on a field trip, I can sense a strong defensive and insecure reaction: “If I don’t see what’s so great about this, I must be not good enough for it.” Art-historical expertise and connoisseurship are not chopped liver. But they are not everything, not even everything about art. How is it that one can go in and out of every great museum and have no idea that there is a large body of research in cognitive psychology and the brain science of perception that (as the eminent art historian E.H. Gombrich was not too blinkered to see) makes art more important, more interesting, and more relevant? Ms. Curator, you may be way up there in the art world pecking order, but you are no Gombrich: Learn from him! There is simply no reason a visitor to the de Young Museum should need his kids to take him across town to the Exploratorium to learn about this.
Would it hurt society’s relationship to art if the institutions that display it had a less religious and awestruck affective orientation to the work? A less one-dimensional scale of value—which doesn’t sort objects out on a “masterpiece” index and induce visitors to scoot past wonders in search of the most famous few pieces—would help. Indeed, why don’t museums show us some fashionable bad art and explain why it is such, and authorize us to believe that if we think this or that piece is silly or a con, we might be right? Certified excellence isn’t the only way to be interesting and considerable. Why aren’t they more willing to entertain the idea that a lot of stuff selling for big money is faddish, schlocky, or silly (but may still be interesting), rather than torturing themselves into making excuses for an embalmed shark or one more metal balloon animal? Why can’t we see the experts disagree and argue with each other?
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? Even members of a bowling league, not to mention citizens of a state, have governing responsibility and authority.
The director of a top-rank museum like the Met or Chicago—certainly two or three of them together—could put paid to the code-of-ethics deaccessioning roadblock as quickly as Saudi Arabia could dismantle OPEC. However, real progress in more effective and creative use of collections will most likely begin with minor or specialized museums and those constrained by smaller collections, like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Unfortunately, the prestige pecking order of museums, to the extent that we assess them by size and fame of collections, makes it extremely difficult for the dinosaurs to learn from these improvisational, adaptive little creatures, and they need help from larger institutions.
One of these, of course, is government, including (in the United States) grant-giving and subsidizing agencies like the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and the National Science Foundation’s social science programs, and overseers like state attorneys general. Museums that have not estimated their collection value and reported it should not be eligible for NEA grants. The distinctive U.S. system delegates government-like powers to tax-exempt nonprofits, including museums and the FASB, so discussion of “arts policy” has to attend also to the governance and practices of the institutions themselves. The first task for all these parties should be accountability, both financial (valuing their collections, at the least) and operational. The second should be pressure to use museums’ enormous latent wealth to create, well, more, better engagement with art in all the dimensions of the phrase.
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.
This article was originally posted in Issue #36, Spring 2015 of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.