Continuing Education... Michael O'Hare on Art Musuems

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
Michael O'Hare on Art Museums... Eric Topol on the Power of Pat...

This week, EconTalk host Russ Roberts interviewed Michael O'Hare on the somewhat mysterious world of art museums and the way their visitors experience art there.

As always, we'd like to hear what you took from this week's conversation, and to continue our own conversation here.

art museum2.jpg

1. What were the three most interesting things you learned from this episode?

2. Have you had a transcendent experience with art? Was it in a museum? Can you explain why? Do you have a favorite art museum? Why is it special?

3. Why do economists place so much emphasis on "marginal cost pricing," and what does it mean? Why does marginal cost pricing seem so difficult to employ in the art world? Where and when might it be effective? (Note: O'Hare mentions some examples, like the Uffizi, MoMA, and the Louvre.)

4. At the end of the interview, O'Hare suggests that art policy may be the most important policy facing the U.S. today. Why does he believe this, and to what extent do you agree with him? What policy prescriptions would you suggest for the U.S. art world? Explain. (Bonus: How do U.S. art museums differ from their European counterparts, and how would this influence policy prescriptions?)

5. Is there another sector or industry that could benefit from O'Hare's advice? What about schools? Hospitals? Businesses? What would you suggest other such institutions should take from this week's episode?

6. Does this week's episode make you more or less eager to visit your nearest art museum. Why? Are you more or less eager to visit an art museum after this week's @EconTalker episode?

7. Some commenters on this episode have suggested art museums act as a cartel keeping art off the market and artificially keeping its price higher than it otherwise would be. Do you agree? Is there an analogy between art museums and De Beers?

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CATEGORIES: Extras (145)

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COMMENTS (21 to date)
J Haskel writes:

sorry on iPhone in Paris!
1. Optimal spread of paintings, current suboptimal
2. Debate over Mc pricing
3. Incentives for donors

August writes:

O'Hare appears to be suggesting perfectly reasonable things, but what he is in fact doing is proposing more power to the bureaucrats who have caused the problems he sees in the first place. Museum directors are constrained in this one area- selling pieces of their collection- because the wishes of the donor must be taken into account. If you were in this position and you wanted to sell a piece, you might well have to track down the heir of the original donor and ask for the right to sell the piece.

Bureaucrats insulate themselves from their bosses, and they like to insulate themselves from the need to pursue a profit as well. The reason museums are ridiculously large, and the collections even larger, is because this provides the museum director with prestige. Instead of making one museum ever larger, the sane thing to do would have been to make more museums. But then you would have more museum directors, with smaller collections, and thus museum directors would be more pedestrian.

So we have the current situation, and O'Hare would hand them more power, and/or plug them into the most insulating of all institutions- government. What would stop the museum director from creating an even larger mountain of stuff upon which to declare himself king? Put ever more of the good stuff in underground bunkers, while filling the halls of the museum with whatever rubbish can bring in the public. The vast majority of the public, by the way, prefers bars, cheap entertainment, etc... The siren song of getting more people to visit often destroys an institution's original purpose. I cannot overstate this- I have seen the damage done to libraries. I have no doubt careless movement in this direction will derail museums too.

dan writes:

It seems there's an art oversupply problem more than an inadequate policy problem. If there were enough demand in places like Lansing MI, they could partner with AIC, etc. and long-term borrow part of their collection - like a local branch of AIC. No art purchase would be necessary. In fact, Lansing MI already has a Smithsonian affiliate. What's wrong with that model?

dan writes:

...of course given the fact that local building, transportation, labor, and security are not free.

Amy Willis writes:

@August...that's an interesting point. But what about O'Hare's suggestion that museum "members" (presumably folks like you and me) share in governance, at least at the level of electing trustees? Or the suggestion that more actual artists, as opposed to just business people, serve as trustees?

@dan How would we adequately discern the level of demand in places other than Lansing? Roberts and O'Hare suggest that many smaller towns and cities would support a museum stocked with the bottom 1% of the holdings of the major museums...But how do we know this to be true? As they also note, cost is a significant barrier to entry.

Mark Sundstrom writes:

The three most interesting things:
1) the art directors code of ethics. I had no idea this existed and I think it needs a revisit.
2) The assessed value of the collections. Much higher than I would have guessed.
3) The high admission fees of some of the museums mentioned (which I guess means I don’t get out much.)

In the past I have purchased annual memberships to some museums, solely for the purpose of being able to visit them frequently to see what most interests me.

I wish I could say it was surprising that most of the collection is never exhibited, but I already knew that depressing fact.

A most fascinating podcast, probably a top five for the year. It probably makes me somewhat less likely to visit my nearest museum..

August writes:


I have not seen very many elections in which there was a valid choice, much less any in which a valid candidate won. I suppose the membership could improve things by reintroducing the need to perform to clear objectives to the bureaucrats. So, in addition to the wishes of the donors, you'd have the wishes of the membership bearing down the bureaucrats. Unfortunately, bureaucrats are rather wily, politically inclined creatures, who are likely to take advantage of all but the most sophisticated members, and they might tilt things to their advantage again via some form of demagoguery.

Frankly, what you need, is a person like me. I find the institutional drift and the resulting entropy more unpleasant than having to call together people and tell them they have to straighten up and stop doing these foolish things. No one wants to manage anyone anymore- this is why you see ten thousand 'surveys' about how your teller in the bank is doing or 'how is my driving' bumper stickers. No one wants to dress anyone down, or fire anyone anymore, without a veil of legitimacy from the public.

Museums & libraries are inherently vulnerable in that you have to have the integrity to be the institution you are supposed to be- and be open to the public, but then you have to stare right in the face that the public may not give a damn. Just go talk to the pastor of the most recent closing church in your area- there are small things you can do to improve attendance, but if you do things that transgress the core purpose, then it is dead.

Russ Roberts writes:

Mark Sundstrom,

I too was very surprised to discover the director's code of ethics. Even more surprised to find that it's written down and is an actual thing rather than an informal norm. It's worth reading. There's a great deal of attention paid to directors personal art dealings, another interesting issue O'Hare and I did not discuss.

Jeff writes:

Q1. I think I was surprised to learn about code of ethics against selling art. Also really didnt realize how much some of the largest museums are keeping in storage and may (literally) never see the light of day. THe issue of membership I also found interesting, and I am trying to think of other places I have membership to that I have no say in the management or governance of.

Q2. I think the most moving experience I ever had was the first time I was at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan when I saw Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio. That being said my favourite is the Leopold Museum in Vienna (Schiele,Kokoscha, Klimt).

Martin Dertz writes:

On the first topic (interesting things learned):

1. An art museum/institute balance sheet can be interesting. The conversation inspired me to check out the the Art Institute of Chicago's; There's a sentence explaining why the value of their art isn't within which, before hearing this discussion, would have been meaningless to me. It says 'The value
of the Institute’s permanent collection is not subject to reasonable estimation'.

2. If you wake up an economist in the middle of the night and ask what the most important this is, they'll reply 'marginal cost pricing' - thought that was pretty good.

3. It's o.k. to just go in to a museum and look at just one painting / exhibit. I guess it's just ingrained in me that museums are day-long experiences since this had never occurred to me, but given I'm fortunate to live in Washington, DC (so museums are free) I should pop in to galleries just to say hello to a particular piece and be on my way.

David writes:

1: Three things:
a- Major museums have 5% of their art on display, 5% that rotates in and out of circulation, and the rest stays locked away.
b- If major museums would sell off 1% of their collection, they could do away with admission and still pay their costs indefinitely.
c- The museum currators' "code of ethics" prevents #2, making it clearly unethical.

Even if I'm not perfectly recalling these facts, these are all mind blowing.

2- The only transcendent experiences with art that I can recall right now are with videos, like this:
My favorite museum is The High Museum of Art in Atlanta GA. I remember going there with my father when I was younger. The children's exhibits were very interactive and engaging. (Sadly, these days the children's exhibits are much less inspirational or interesting to anyone.)
These days I like the Triton Museum in Santa Clara. It's small, but near and free.

4- I think he believes this because art can be inspirational and can stimulate imagination. I agree that it is important, but to an extent. I would agree with any policy that would encourage (not force) museums to make art more accessible to the public (like making it free via selling some of it off, and making sure audio guided tours aren't too full of jargon); but nothing stronger.

5- Interesting question. I can't think of any other sector that has as much of its supply going to waste, except maybe the military, and their goods are plenty accessible enough to the public as is.

6- More, because it makes me want to visit a museum more mindfully, and try the game of "If I could take one piece home, what would it be?".

7- That's a plausible perspective.

Derek Foster writes:

1) Really enjoyed this episode. It brought up issues that I had never previously considered. Implications of hoarding so much art that is never viewed that could be better deployed elsewhere. Museums don´t value their collections and claim poverty when this is really a farce. Love the idea of making all art museums free so that people could enjoy more art on their own terms.

2) Best art museum experience ever was at the Met. I live in Colombia where things are stereotypically unorganized and chaotic. I went to the Met on a cold winter evening when the museum was quite uncrowded. I got an amazing sense of peace from the fact that everything is perfectly organized, clean and perfectly lit. Just felt like heaven, particularly the Temple of Dendor.

3) The one place I took issue with O´Hare was with the marginal cost pricing. Some museums are having a major issue with overcrowding. Uffizi is overcrowded and the Vatican Museum is unbearable. I would never go back. Better experience was the Borghese Gallery which drastically limits supply and time you can spend. Tickets aren´t too expensive but you have to buy online days in advance. Result is a far more pleasant experence then fighting all the selfie stick wielding masses.

7) I do agree with that analogy. The art director code of ethics almost makes that explicit for if all museums suddenly sought to liquidate a percentage of their collection then prices would obviously decline and rapidly.

Doug Anderson writes:

1 Three things: (i) code of ethics that prohibits selling art unless proceeds used to buy more art; (ii) value of collections; (iii)how cost of entry affects use (not really surprising, but I had never considered)

2. No. I like the Getty because of the great setting and architecture.

3. What is this, a quiz? :)

4. Maybe not most important, but the value of collections is staggering. If this resource is mismanaged due to bad institutional rules, there is a great chance to improve welfare at low cost. Maybe there really is a $20 bill on the sidewalk.

5. Think tanks and academic institutions that put information behind paywalls. Cato should give away eBooks for free and the Journal of Law and Economics should likewise be free. I have suggested this in the past to both institutions, but I have been inspired to pursue this again.

6. About the same. Resentful of entrance fees, but want to deploy suggestions about how to think about the pieces being viewed.

7. I think there is something to this. Which is one reason I am somewhat skeptical of the estimates of the value of the collections, esp. in a world where museums could freely sell items (but the even if the value is half that estimated, it is still huge).

Jerm writes:

2) Kimbell Art Museum in Dallas Texas (It's free). My local museum director says that it contains "400 masterpieces, no junk." That's a perfect summary of it. Not too big, but everything worth seeing. Makes me wonder what percentage of the collection is on display.

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles (also free). Location and building are half of the reason to go.

Philadelphia Museum of Art (not free). It's like the Las Vegas buffet of museums. Spent all day and didn't see half of it. Amusing to see 10 times as many people taking pictures with the Rocky statue outside (and running the steps, but not actually going inside).

Jerm writes:

5) The code of ethics reminds me of an episode of Planet Money where they discuss a similar code in zoos (episode 566: Zoo Economy).

It sounds like the real problem is size, and the major museums are just "too big" to work efficiently. I work at a small museum (amount of collection on display: 15%), and I'm surprised that more discussion wasn't focused on making museums smaller. Maybe there can be parallels to the music industry? Or professional sports? Or opera/ballet? Anything where a ton of value has traditionally been locked up by the dominant players, possibly choking off wider interest (and a different kind of engagement) in the general community.

I work at a small contemporary art museum with works that would be very similar to the bottom 1% of a major museum. I'd say that these works are pretty readily available, especially because they are constantly being created by living artists. If a small town wanted to make a museum with engaging works, they can find them hot off the presses. Just not Monets. (I find that this week's episode loses a lot of meaning once "living art" is folded in with the "dead art")

Rick writes:

When I heard the assessed values figures, I had to wonder about the degree to which the estimated value of collections were inflated due to the artificial scarcity created by the existing no-sale policies. If thousands upon thousands of pieces suddenly came on the market, surely they would collectively fetch much less than they would when appraising the value of each work independently in an auction setting. It's not clear how much latent demand would arise to keep prices up.

Amy Willis writes:

@Jerm, that's a great point re: "living" v "dead" art. I suspect many up and coming artists would love to have their work picked up by smaller museums.

Thanks, too, for the Zoo Economy link. I'd not heard that one, and am now having a listen. (I'll also post it later today on our Facebook page.)

Shawn Barnhart writes:

I was surprised to hear no mention of the use of technology in art museums or the concept of a virtual museum.

Part of the reason that museums don't display as much of their collection is the logistical problem of removing items from storage, hanging them, etc, along with the random risk that no matter how carefully they are handled something could happen.

Why not create high resolution imaging of items like paintings and use technology to display them? 4K 84" flat panel displays are only $10,000 and likely could do a more than passable job of showing paintings with plenty of detail. Larger pieces could be projected.

And why do we have to go to the museum at all to see a lot things? Why can't I go online and view high-resolution versions of the collection? And go ahead and withhold that portion of the collection on display so I retain an incentive to see the museum on premise.

I'm sure elite art snobs would turn their noses up at digital representations of paintings (even if modern high resolution imaging can show fine details like brush strokes), but it seems to solve a lot of problems with the physical nature of art.

Chris Peel writes:

As an alternative to selling art, why not just rent it out to suitably reliable private parties?

Amy Willis writes:

@Shawn- good point. There was brief mention of the Google initiative (link on the episode page), but each institution has images of only a small portion of its collection.

@Chris- interesting suggestion. It works for couture...

Kevin writes:

I apologize for posting this so late, but I am catching up on my podcasts. I found this episode interesting and informative, as I do so many of EconTalk.

I wholeheartedly agree that there is a mismanagement issue with the assets of art museums. I found it surprising that Dr. Roberts did not push back a bit on the "sell 1% of the art in the collection and fund free admission forever" comment. Perhaps the reason for the currators' code of ethics statement that they not sell art other than to purchase art is to keep the price of art high. If all the museums sold 1% of their collections, the supply on the market would increase dramatically. I would view this as a shift in the supply curve, and all the art would suddenly be valued at lower levels. The people who own art, and pay insane prices at auctions, would not like this at all. I am not say the museums should not look into doing this, but I am saying that there is no free lunch, as someone famous once said.

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