Ben Davis has an op-ed in the New York Times late last week wondering whether the unique US model for funding art museum through private benefactors wasn’t creating a real problem with over-investment in building projects and under-investment in operating funds.
Add the dissipation of support through various private museum initiatives and you get Davis making a good case that philanthropy misallocates resources.
Davis uses as an example the Met’s need to expand into Contemporary art to continue to activate its donor base.
According to the Association of Art Museum Directors, for every $8 visitors spend at museums in North America, museums spend $55. So running a museum isn’t a great business, despite the crowds.
According to The Art Newspaper, close to $5 billion from 2007 to 2014 was spent in the United States on new expansions, more than the other 37 countries the newspaper examined put together. The United States is also, the publication notes, unique in the degree to which it funds culture through private philanthropy, rather than public money.
For museum executives, the dirty secret of expansions has been that they are often motivated by the need to have some exciting new thing to rally board members and interest potential patrons. These institutions depend heavily on rich people to fund them. Those rich people like to pay for flashy new buildings; no one wants to donate to boring old museum upkeep.
Missing from Davis’s account is one important criticism: Does the Met’s own management make good fiscal decisions? After all, the museum was able to save more than $750,000 on the salaries of the two top marketing executives it just let go.
How the Rich Are Hurting the Museums They Fund (The New York Times)