Virginia Postrel has a very good summary of an important article in Democracy by Michael O’Hare that tries to redefine the notion of a museum’s public trust and how to measure whether a museum is providing that efficiently considering the massive tax advantages afforded donors and institutions. Postrel closes with an assault on the AAMD’s guidelines on deaccessioning which would prevent O’Hare’s scheme being put into place because it forbids using the proceeds of art sales to any other use but acquisitions:
O’Hare estimates, for example, that the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection is worth between $26 billion and $43 billion. The annual return on those assets measured in visitor hours and research — which he acknowledges is a “coarse calculation” — is a mere 1 percent. “This is in no way a worst or even a bad case,” he writes, “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.” He believes that, confronted with such numbers, the business executives who make up museum boards would push the institutions to get more out of their collections. How might they boost engagement with art?
O’Hare then veers into the truly heretical. If the Art Institute sold just 1 percent of its collection by value, he writes, it could endow free admission forever. Visitors could go in and out without paying. Free admission would encourage more people to come more often and to spend more time looking closely at a few works, rather than rushing through at the typical clip of six seconds per piece trying to get their money’s worth. Selling unseen artworks could also pay for more educational programs, longer hours, and larger galleries to display more art.
Moving lesser artworks out of the vault and into the market would likely lead to more and better engagement with art on both ends of the transaction.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.