The Future of Museums

The Brooklyn Museum, one of the finest in our nation and often mislabeled as a "wanna be Met," however, it houses one of the most prestigious collections in our nation.

Obviously this economy is big ole bucket of you-know-what. I really don't need to write an introduction regarding our current economic situation. But among all the things suffering, one of them (sadly) is museums and art centers. Several museums and galleries across the country have closed their doors and once-impressive and toughly-built permanent collections are now ready to follow the exit signs. There are many contributing factors to the economic decline of the art world, many of which are not just affecting museums but also the rest of the world. What we don't need, however, is one more thing to bring the art world to shambles. Senator Tom Coburn from Oklahoma (go figure) sure seems to be excited about this whole "lets shoot the art world while wounded" thing. He is trying to pass amendment No. 175, which prevents funds from the economic stimulus bill from supporting the arts. Does he not realize that art is part of the economy as well? Click here to urge your senators to vote NO of the Coburn "Limitation on Funds Amendment No. 175;" According to this source:

-Nonprofit arts organizations and their audiences generate
$166.2 billion in economic activity every year, support 5.7
million jobs, and return nearly $30 billion in government
revenue every year.
-Every $1 billion spent by these organizations - and their
audiences - results in almost 70,000 full-time equivalent jobs.

But this is post is not about this inept senator, it is about museums and their future in this economy. The New York Times has had some pretty interesting coverage in this issue. Just recently, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (MOCA) was ready to close its doors; you may ask yourself, how does one of the largest, most prestigious museums in our country simply just goes bankrupt in a couple of months? Easy, the museum went through all of its endowment ($40 million) and all of its unrestricted funds ($20 million) over the past 10 years, leaving them with a cushion of $6 million which is not nearly close to $40 million and not nearly enough to steer an institution of that caliber through this problematic times. The MOCA finally accepted a $30 million bailout from philanthropist Eli Broad.

So a bailout is one of the options, but at this point how many people are ready to make donations and let alone, offer bailouts to museums and art centers? So what other options are there? The new york times recently offered an article on museums looking inward for their own bailouts. This article outilines some of the smaller, more creative institutions that have made good use of their permanent collection and resources to resurface and make it through the depression. The theory is that many museums are like ice bergs- they only show about 10 percent of what they own. Many museums have impressive permanent collections with invaluable objects that have never been shown before. This is the time to dig them out, reconfigure the museum, and start finding way to draw people's attention back to art. Many museums have started moving things around and pulling out African art artifacts, for example, which in the past weren't considered something deserving of being front and center and placing it in the front of the museum. There are ways of using internal resources and creating new, refreshing experiences for the regular art lover. "The goal in most cases is the same: to get visitors through the door. People bring museums to life. Lively museums feel young and hip, which brings rewards."

But you may ask yourself, why don' they just sell some stuff? Surely, a couple paintings can raise about just enough money for a bailout, and will a permanent collection really suffer from the loss of two or three paintings? probably not, but the issue seems to be larger than that. The National Academy Museum in New York expected a backlash when its board decided to sell two Hudson River School paintings for around $15 million. Apparently the American Association of Museums and Association of Art Museum Directors has firm policies against museums’ selling off artworks because of financial hardship and are not going to make an exception. The AAMD requested members “to suspend any loans of works of art to and any collaborations on exhibitions with the National Academy.” Again, the National Academy was shot while wounded.

There are two arguments, one being the one I already made: We could see two paintings and save the museum, or follow these rules and close our doors. It seems to make sense, but the AAMD's argument is also valid, Dan Monroe, a board member of the directors’ said “it’s wrong to look at the situation from the standpoint of a single institution. You have to look at what would happen if every institution went this route.”

But we are talking about a museum selling a couple paintings; what happens when other institutions such as universities sell off their collections just to make a little extra cash. Many universities have very prestigious museums and collections, one the most important collections of postwar art in New England belongs to the Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum. This 48-year-old museum will be closing and selling off the entire holdings of its collection in order to shore up the university’s struggling finances. This brings us back full circle to Senator Coburn's ammendment: NO, art is not just a commodity that you can sell when you need money for something else, and then deny money to because there are "more important things" that deserve and economic stimulus.

Erik Jacobs for The New York Times

“I was shocked. I’m still shocked,” Michael Rush, director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, said about the decision to close the museum.

Art is crucial to our lives and there are museums and collections that have been around longer and have touched more lives than probably every single business getting a boost from the economic stimulus program. In 2008, CEOs and Wall Streeters that were bailed out received a combined total of $18 BILLION in bonuses! YES! Some CEOs who brought their companies down to misery and bankruptcy due to bad management of company funds and overspending on lavish lifestyles were then lucky enough to be offered a bailout and are now getting close to $30 million just as a end-of-the-year bonus! "Here's a $30 million personal bonus for bringing your company to failure and being the reason over 5,000 lost their jobs." Thank god Obama has put a cap on executives' salaries...

So these jerks are getting that kind of money, while museums and art centers struggle to keep their doors open. Maybe it's time to reconsider....