Art distribution in the US, measured in persons per monet.
May 7, 2015 10:22 AM   Subscribe

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 [Art Institute of Chicago] to endow free admission forever. (via)
posted by eotvos (42 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
Related: Museum admission should be free: The state of art in 2014, by Christopher Knight
for Los Angeles Times, Dec. 19, 2014. This article notes:
Ironically, when it comes to admissions we're not even talking about a huge revenue generator. Nationally, the portion of an art museum's annual operating budget that is covered by visitors pushing cash across the counter at the admissions desk hovers in the vicinity of 5%. That's beyond modest, relatively speaking.
Counterpoint (of sorts): Museums should feel free to charge admission, by Jonathan Jones for The Guardian, July 21, 2011. The tagline: "We can't have museums selling off our cultural heritage to make ends meet – charging entry is a far better solution."

A spin on this all: what if museums sold works to other museums? Donors and supporters favor one facility over another for a variety of reasons, and this would give newer and smaller museums a chance to increase their collections, donors to support a local or preferred institution, and the public wins by keeping art available (if not visible) to the public.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:38 AM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


Congratulations, you've discovered art arbitrage
posted by boo_radley at 10:52 AM on May 7, 2015 [6 favorites]


I think museums are sometimes like deBeers; sure they can distribute their stuff for others to have access to it. But when that happens, its demand goes down. So better to just hoard it and let others talk about how that rare piece is at the museum...but not in display.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:54 AM on May 7, 2015 [6 favorites]


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.

I get that this guy finds fine art museums irritating, but this is just so petulant and self-absorbed. How is it a maze when you just said that you have a map? The works are spaced far enough apart that people can look at them without stepping on others. The labels are tiny, granted, but the information on them isn't "almost random" in any sense...labels consistently list the name, artist, year, and medium , and then sometimes include other context, or explanation, or a good story when there is one. Gallery explanatory panels frequently discuss criticisms and controversies regarding the work, but yeah, the pieces are generally on display because someone thinks they're important, so it's a reasonable expectation to find laudatory text explaining that.
posted by desuetude at 10:59 AM on May 7, 2015 [24 favorites]


Start with that gawdawful Seurat. Sunday at the park it somewhere else.
posted by sexyrobot at 11:03 AM on May 7, 2015 [7 favorites]


"Through the rooms people (mostly women) come and go, talking occasionally in hushed tones of Michelangelo, and texting."
Thank God his high school English teacher labored not in vain.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:05 AM on May 7, 2015 [19 favorites]


He has some good points, if you read the whole piece. Like this:

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.

I don't get the griping. His point is not just "sell the art pieces you aren't showing" but "there are lots of ways museums could do a better job engaging their visitors."

As for the part about selling the stuff in the museum basement, the question he didn't answer is, who are the buyers, and will the appraised value really be what the museum gets for those pieces? Also, of course, he doesn't really get into what happens if those pieces disappear into private billionaire collections. I would be more inclined to propose that museums sell to other museums (in flyover country or other places which would appreciate them) or to other entities that would put them on public display.

I agree with his point that all that art does no one any good locked away and unseen.
posted by emjaybee at 11:10 AM on May 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


He makes a lot of good points:

Selling just 1 percent of the collection [at the Art Institute of Chicago] by value—much more than 1 percent by object count—would enable the AIC to endow free admission forever...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.


It's kind of weird that the 19 out of 20 works that aren't displayed are deemed valuable enough that they must be preserved forever at whatever cost, but not interesting enough to ever be displayed. Selling some off would not only allow existing museums to do much more, but would also allow smaller and newer museums to build a collection worth showing.
posted by echo target at 11:12 AM on May 7, 2015 [13 favorites]


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.

Why would previously-acquired works be on the current balance sheet? That's...not what a balance sheet is for.

With apologies for the apples-to-oranges metaphor, he doesn't list the value of all of his potentially-valuable assets on his income tax forms.
posted by desuetude at 11:20 AM on May 7, 2015


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.
Given that this is exactly what many museums have been doing over the last several decades, it makes me wonder how often Mike has visited a museum.
Selling just 1 percent of the collection [at the Art Institute of Chicago] by value—much more than 1 percent by object count—would enable the AIC to endow free admission forever...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.
If we've agreed that the primary purpose of the art museum is to teach people about art and we've agreed that access is more important than preservation, then, ideally, we should sell the entire collection, build a stadium-sized building and project pictures of art on the walls. Everyone's a winner!
posted by octobersurprise at 11:22 AM on May 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


Mike knows his stuff. There are some social undercurrents he didn't try to swim, otherwise the article woud be more of a treatise. His extensive experience includes a lot of cold shoulders offered by those who benefit from the status quo.

Who would buy? Well, China, Turkey, Saudi, Japan, Korea, Brazil, or money launderers, not to mention American or Russian oligarchs. I think the trick is to create a different kind of buy, or sell scenario, a different sort of acquisition, one or several that benefit the players, and at the same time, benefit the society of viewers.

I have failed to mention benefitting living artists, of all genders, cultures, and those enchanted, who would become artists, and those who would like to purchase art.

I see a World Heritage Site, sort of form which helps display art, guarantee its security, and also accessibility. Anyway, good article.
posted by Oyéah at 11:40 AM on May 7, 2015


ideally, we should sell the entire collection, build a stadium-sized building and project pictures of art on the walls.
octobersurprise

With the projections tightly spaced together to cram as many in as we can, along with gigantic explanatory signs for each one deprecating the displayed piece. Visitors would be encouraged to speak, constantly, at the greatest volume possible and spend at least 30 minutes looking at each piece.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:44 AM on May 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


There would be some hilarity in the crashing of various sectors of the art market when all this stuff was sold. "Let's dump our scarce commodities onto the market quickly to raise capital!!!!"

But of course, all that would happen would be that these lesser works would go from being public property (and thus seen very occasionally and available for curated display) to being private property and unavailable. The Art Institute of Chicago, at least, brings out its secondary works from time to time, usually around a theme - and I know, for a regional watercolor painted by a relative is in their permanent collection and very occasionally surfaces.

As to the "oh, you are supposed to know this one work of art before you look at the others and that is bad" business: on the one hand, yes, on the other - just as with any form of deviance, museum-going requires learning the norms of the experience. Deviance and museum-going require individual effort - meaning that as a museum-goer you have to be able to say "hm, I guess I don't know everything about this piece, maybe I'll look it up when I get home" or "hm, maybe I'll learn some more about art" or "I am at ease with just looking at things for the sheer visual pleasure". I don't walk in to a museum expecting that I'll know enough about the art to understand it completely - how could I? I mean, my new favorite museum in the whole world - the Harvard Art Museum - has such a diverse collection that most of it, of necessity, must be experienced without full knowledge. I deeply enjoyed the Lion-headed Deities Enthroned even though I can't even remember which Egyptian era they date from, for example.

I mean for pete's sake, surely art is not reducible to a string of references and a clear understanding of iconography? Why have the visual at all if that's the case? Why not just write down imaginary pictures?
posted by Frowner at 11:51 AM on May 7, 2015 [6 favorites]


Thing is, the Art Institute rotates stuff in and out of storage all the time. Most of the churn happens in the designated rotating galleries (their whole point is to show off and contextualize the odd neglected bits of the collection), but there's plenty of movement in the main exhibit halls too. The greatest hits will remain in their places from season to season, of course, but you may very well notice "new" works on the walls in between. I know this all too well because the fuckers took down my favorite Corot last year.
posted by Iridic at 11:57 AM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


(Or basically what Frowner said.)
posted by Iridic at 11:58 AM on May 7, 2015


> Who would buy? Well, China, Turkey, Saudi, Japan, Korea, Brazil, or money launderers, not to mention American or Russian oligarchs. I think the trick is to create a different kind of buy, or sell scenario, a different sort of acquisition, one or several that benefit the players, and at the same time, benefit the society of viewers.

We're going to limit the free market of glorious capitalism where anyone with the cash is able to buy what they want? The restrictions you speak of would be considered unthinkably socialist.
posted by desuetude at 12:12 PM on May 7, 2015


museum-going requires learning the norms of the experience

The author has a noticeable chip on his shoulder. I kept wondering when he was going to suggest selling off the modern art that he thought was worse than what a six year-old could make, but which some rich sucker might pony up for.

I agree with Frowner's point about the sell-off plan being foolish from the get-go to anyone who understands how the market works and how flooding it with rare pieces would crash the system, besides which nearly all museums rotate works from their permanent collections in and out of storage.

an environment as disorienting as a Las Vegas casino

(Eye roll.) He's either never been to Las Vegas or is lying about having been in art museums, because this line is patent nonsense. I think what he meant, but didn't have the nerve to write was, "we enter an environment I hold as much moral disapproval and distaste for as I do a Las Vegas casino."

We can get a latte, but not a hot dog.

Did he really complain about this? The article is a parody of itself.
posted by aught at 12:31 PM on May 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


Come on, man. If art museums were really down with the gente, they'd serve hot dogs. Because you know how the gente love hot dogs.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:38 PM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


I had no idea that propping up an inflated art market was in the charters of most art museums.
posted by All Out of Lulz at 12:39 PM on May 7, 2015


The Laguna Art Museum has a hot dog.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:47 PM on May 7, 2015


I had no idea that propping up an inflated art market was in the charters of most art museums.
posted by All Out of Lulz


Eponyetc.
posted by aught at 12:58 PM on May 7, 2015


No, my point was not "let's prop up the art market"; my point was that if you think that you have, say, $28 billion dollars worth of art and you - along with other museums - try to sell a lot of it at once, that's going to reduce the value of what you have. So "all we need to do is sell the less valuable majority of our holdings and we'll have lots of operating capital" may not actually work. Getting rid of the art and not realizing the funds you'd hoped to get seems like the worst of both worlds.
posted by Frowner at 1:37 PM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


I had no idea that propping up an inflated art market was in the charters of most art museums.

Doing so is in the direct interest of most of their board members.
posted by Uncle Ira at 1:42 PM on May 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


I didn't say anything about restricting the market, or socialism. Someone asked who would buy? The monied buys, and the monied is any one, or entity with the money. I was just thinking there might be some other means to the end of more low cost public art viewing, and education, if the players were offered other alternative means to defray taxes, or make money. I think the congress just gutted the inheritance tax, did I misread that? So the reason for donation, rather than sales of inherited art, might have just flown the museum coop. I think a big piece of the game just changed, gotta be nimble, Jack.

Museums can't serve as shelter for the homeless, as libraries currently do, not to throw a brick through anyone's window.
posted by Oyéah at 2:05 PM on May 7, 2015


Museums are accepting art donations as time-shares, and they in fact can also sell parts of their collections as time-shares.
posted by Kabanos at 2:52 PM on May 7, 2015


So "all we need to do is sell the less valuable majority of our holdings and we'll have lots of operating capital" may not actually work.

Sure, but that's not the suggestion. The suggestion is to sell off perhaps as much as 3% of their holdings. By (current) value.
posted by nickmark at 3:18 PM on May 7, 2015


That's not to mention how it would drive down donations. Who would want to donate art that might just be sold?
posted by corb at 3:34 PM on May 7, 2015


More surprising is his unsourced assertion that 20% of people have been to an art museum in the past year.
posted by Gable Oak at 3:38 PM on May 7, 2015


> Why would previously-acquired works be on the current balance sheet? That's...not what a balance sheet is for.

Why wouldn't you list assets on a balance sheet?!

I actually went to look up the term in case I've been getting it wrong all this time, but no - "A financial statement that summarizes a company's assets, liabilities and shareholders' equity at a specific point in time."

If a corporation purchases a $1 million building for cash, you should see one million in disappear from their cash, and a $1 million asset appear - all on their balance sheet.

If a museum were to purchase a $1 million painting, I'd expect it also to appear on their balance sheet as an asset. I'm kind of shocked it isn't happening - I don't see how this gibes with GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 4:14 PM on May 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


Thank you for posting this article - I loved it, even if it appears to have rubbed some here the wrong way.

Back in the day, no trip to New York city would be complete without my pilgrimage to the Met to sit quietly in the Rembrandt gallery for 15 minutes. Just sitting and soaking in the glory of those piercing stares was ... transcendent.

So it makes me unreasonably angry to read that those paintings are not even valued as assets by art museums. How can this be? We provide hefty subsidies, exempt them from taxes, allow them to collect admission fees and donations, and they don't even report the net value of their collections? (In fact, this makes no sense. Don't they insure their paintings? How can you insure a Picasso without assigning a nominal value to it? And if you do, isn't it simple arithmetic to add up the value of your collection? Someone please explain...)

And I love the idea of these museums liquidating the bottom 2% of their collections and endowing free admission for everyone. Why not? If selling off the bottom 2% crashes the art market, maybe it deserves to be crashed. Right now, it just serves as this gigantic tax dodge for the ultra-rich.
posted by RedOrGreen at 6:07 PM on May 7, 2015


lupus_yonderboy: " I'm kind of shocked it isn't happening - I don't see how this gibes with GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles...)"
RedOrGreen: "So it makes me unreasonably angry to read that those paintings are not even valued as assets by art museums. How can this be? We provide hefty subsidies, exempt them from taxes, allow them to collect admission fees and donations, and they don't even report the net value of their collections?"

I don't know what the GAAP rule is specifically, but I did learn this years ago in an accounting-for-lawyers class (and my husband does some of this at work), and this is pretty common for museum-type entities with large art holdings. Museums have a couple of exemptions when it comes to how they value their permanent collections. When PricewaterhouseCoopers did the Vatican's first-ever modern audit (pre-euro!) they listed ALL of the art as having a total value of 1 lira, because it wasn't salable (because of its religious and cultural significance) and it was literally invaluable in that you couldn't stick a value on unique works, with religious value, that couldn't be sold. (The buildings and grounds were similarly valued at 1 lira because you can't sell a sovereign nation.) Generally, if an asset cannot be sold or used as security against debts, it's not listed as an asset -- which is true for all corporations. (Employees are a very valuable asset, but you definitely cannot sell them!) Permanent collections of non-profit art museums are considered, for the most part, unsalable. But the museum also then can't take loans against their value, etc. Instead, museums do a very detailed audit of collection holdings that describes them in detail but doesn't assign values to them.

This is also why it was a BIG FUCKIN' DEAL when the Detroit bankruptcy guys proposed selling off assets from the art museum -- non-profit art museum collections have basically NEVER been accessible to creditors in bankruptcy proceedings. Donors raised $800 million to donate to pension funds, to stave off the possibility of Detroit Institute of Arts having its collection reachable in bankruptcy.

RedOrGreen: " How can you insure a Picasso without assigning a nominal value to it?"

They're valued for insurance separately, but -- this might surprise you -- most major museum collections are so valuable and irreplaceable that they're largely uninsured, unless they're being lent to another museum or otherwise in transit. What earthly good would it do you to assign a nominal value to Starry Night, if it were destroyed in a fire or stolen? You can't replace it. There's nothing comparable.

Insuring art museum collections would be crushingly unaffordable -- it's so expensive, in fact, that the federal government subsidizes the insurance for lending and transport. They insure exhibitions valued between $75 million and $1 billion, and top out at $7.5 billion in indemnity out at one time. The insurance is backed by the full faith and credit of the United States -- it has to be, because art is otherwise too risky and expensive to insure in large quantities. They also exclude a large number of works from coverage, including pastels, charcoals, frescos, some oil paintings, as simply too expensive even for the US government to insure.

We actually do have a monetary value estimate from the Detroit Institute of Arts collection because of the bankruptcy proceedings -- it's 2014 value was appraised at slightly over $8 billion. A single art museum collection in Detroit (albeit one of the best in the country) is literally too valuable for the US government to be able to afford to insure it. The museum's total endowment is only $89 million ... 1% of the value of the collection (although the goal is to get the endowment up to $800 million).

Please note this is not an area I have any expertise in, just something I know a little about through my husband's work and because of my studies in religious art and architecture. I know there are MetaFilter museum operations people who know much more.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:49 PM on May 7, 2015 [26 favorites]


I wrote a piece about the practice of "deaccessioning" lately, and was pretty shocked at how some museums are playing fast and loose with their art. If you haven't checked out this piece (not mine) in the NYT about the practice and the growing concern that art originally purchased for the public will end up in the hallways of really rich dudes, you can check it out here.
posted by mynameisluka at 6:51 PM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also, deaccessioning is against the tenets of the Association of American Art Directors and has earned sanctions for institutions like the Delaware Art Museum.
posted by mynameisluka at 6:54 PM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


I still don't get the accounting. So when you buy a work of art, you credit cash, debit... ?

Something like an operating expense? But then wouldn't your income statement look like you were just throwing money in a hole in the ground?
posted by ctmf at 7:07 PM on May 7, 2015


ctmf: "I still don't get the accounting. So when you buy a work of art, you credit cash, debit... ?"

Typically the artworks are donated; larger museums often do acquisitions through a foundation arm that is financially separate and that raises money for specific purchases and then donates them.

There are special rules (including in the tax code) for capitalizing direct art purchases, but that is waaaaaaaaaay beyond my technical knowledge. Generally governments and art museums can treat art and historical artifacts as capital outlays that are "inexhaustible" (their values doesn't diminish over time), so you don't have to "capitalize" the purchase. You account for the outlay and then you have to create a detailed catalog of the item (including why it qualifies as inexhaustible). Here's FASB guidance:
11. An entity need not recognize contributions of works of art, historical treasures, and similar assets if the donated items are added to collections that meet all of the followingconditions:
a. Are held for public exhibition, education, or research in furtherance of public service rather than financial gain
b. Are protected, kept unencumbered, cared for, and preserved
c. Are subject to an organizational policy that requires the proceeds from sales of collection
items to be used to acquire other items for collections.

27. An entity that does not recognize and capitalize its collections or that capitalizes collections prospectively shall describe its collections, including their relative significance, and its accounting and stewardship policies for collections.
Anyway, I only know enough about accounting to know how to turn things over to an accountant, but museums do own a special class of assets ("art" and "artifacts" and whatnot) that are recognized in the tax code and accounting standards as having unique properties, so museums who are intended as final owners and conservators of art are allowed to treat the asset class differently from either individuals (who are always free to create a non-profit or a foundation if they'd like to ensure the long-term care of their art) or from art dealers who buy and sell.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:30 PM on May 7, 2015 [8 favorites]


ctmf: " But then wouldn't your income statement look like you were just throwing money in a hole in the ground?"

And yes, this is basically how museum finances work, and it's one reason state government is always so eager to cut funding for museums, there's no return on investment! My husband just testified to a legislative committee today about some matters related to archaeological artifact valuation, and the legislators got on a tangent because they're doing FY16 budgets right now, and some were shouting about the fact that they shovel money into the state museums and they don't return their cost in tourism dollars, while others were shouting that that was clearly not the point of museums and you can't put a dollar value on history and so on.

posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:36 PM on May 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


Nonprofits are allowed to use cash flow accounting.
posted by miyabo at 7:38 PM on May 7, 2015


The Cincinnati Art Museum had a salon-style display of a bunch of pieces from storage last year, which I think was a good way to display some of the less charismatic stuff.
posted by Small Dollar at 8:37 PM on May 7, 2015


The Delaware Art Museum only got about half of the price they expected for the painting they sold. They were planning to sell 2 more but I haven't heard that they've been sold yet.
posted by interplanetjanet at 5:11 AM on May 8, 2015


Also, the Delaware Art Museum is the opposite of what the author of the article is suggesting. It is a small museum selling major paintings they had on display, not a large museum selling minor works from storage. But this is one problem with the article's suggestion, if small museums can't afford what they already have, how are they going to buy things from major museums?
posted by interplanetjanet at 5:23 AM on May 8, 2015


Some people seem to have a view that works are either on display or in storage. Technically true at a specific point in time but this ignores the circulation on and off display, access for research and loans to other institutions that works go through over time. It's not like there are two separate collections.
posted by deadwax at 6:00 AM on May 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


The author of the article (seemingly willfully) ignores the great efforts many museums have been making in recent years to make the art not currently on display more accessible via digitization and online catalogues and exhibits. He also neglects to mention efforts like visible storage, since none of that fits his thesis of most art being "hidden away in basements and warehouses" in a few big museums.

ARE YOU REALLY WORTH WHAT YOU COST, OR JUST MERELY WORTHWHILE? AND WHO GETS TO SAY? by Stephen E. Weil, 2002.

The Thorny Issue of Deaccession
.

Can Museums Cash In On Art?
posted by gudrun at 9:05 PM on May 9, 2015


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