Late last week, amid the hubbub of the auctions, Economist Tyler Cowen published an opinion piece on Bloomberg addressing the now-on-hold sale of paintings from the Berkshire Museum.
Cowen makes some good and sensible points about the sales and the situation in the Berkshires that many of the shrill commentators ought to take notice of. Among those are the point that Berkshire Museum is shifting focus toward its Natural History and Science function and away from its role as an art museum. That may be a foolish choice. But the museum has the right to be foolish.
More to the point, Cowen addresses the issue of the sales. Before we get to his defense of the museum’s right to abide by the contracts it has already entered into legally, let’s add one other factor that is implicit in the Berkshire Museum situation: cultural capital.
The locals and the Rockwell heirs have one reason to oppose the sale. But there’s another very vocal faction who view any sale as an abomination. These folks believe the works should be donated to another museum for stewardship.
The problem with this view is that it denies the Berkshire Museum the advantage of Rockwell’s (and others) now greater cultural capital. There’s never been a time when a Norman Rockwell painting has been as valuable as it is now.
In shifting focus, the Berkshire Museum is taking advantage of that cultural capital by selling the Rockwells and other works. For the opponents of the sale, selling the works to buy more art would be acceptable. Selling to shift away from art and invest in the institution’s endowment and physical plant is not.
But capital is capital. It’s value lies in its fungibility. And the fact that the museum is a not-for-profit doesn’t mean it should not take advantage of its own gains. It just means that the gains need to be re-invested in the institutions mission.
To take this idea to absurd lengths, a museum that decides to sell valuable art to invest in acquiring lurid or repugnant art would be acceptable to the critics. But the museum that sells art to invest in another mission would not be.
In the end, that fetishizes art and museums which presents a danger to both (and is exactly what we all most fear from the growth of the art market as the central measure of art’s worth.)
With all of that in mind, here’s Cowen:
museums commonly move into new areas where they can be strong and discard some older activities. As more years pass and technology continues to revolutionize America, it will become increasingly obvious that not every institution set up as an art museum should or will be able to continue to display art.
The paintings for sale were not going to be destroyed, and they might have ended up where more people would see them. Even if private collectors bought the two Rockwells, paintings of that quality usually end up being donated to major museums and or lent to exhibitions. […]
Unlike some commentators in this debate, I don’t view the buying and selling of paintings as a tainted activity in moral terms. Much of the Italian Renaissance was conducted — and created — on an explicitly commercial basis. For that matter Rockwell himself, in his own time and for many years afterward, was derided for having an excessively commercial emphasis. To many it feels like “dirty business” when a museum sells art, but artworks sometimes need to change location to stay relevant, just as museums may need to shift their focus. Dynamism has long been a strength of the American nonprofit arts, and we should be reluctant to put the courts in a position to thwart or micromanage the reallocation of resources.
Sell the Rockwells. It’s Just Business. (Bloomberg)