Russ Roberts

Michael O'Hare on Art Museums

EconTalk Episode with Michael O'Hare
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Michael O'Hare of the University of California, Berkeley talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the management of art museums. O'Hare suggests a number of changes that would allow museums to be more effective and to justify their non-profit status--lower admission prices, selling part of their substantial unseen inventory to other museums, and broadening the activities of the museum to include educational exhibits on the creation of art and the commercial side of art. He encourages trustees of museums to see their job more as tough-minded advisors and less as financiers of museum budgets.

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0:33Intro. [Recording date: April 27, 2015.] Russ: Our topic today comes from a recent essay he has written, "Museums Can Change--Will They?" published in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, and we'll put a link up to that article. [...] Early in your essay you talk about approaching an art museum in the somewhat surreal atmosphere--the way the arts display, the way we interact with it. There might be an audio guide to help you along the way. At the end there's an upscale cafe, a gift shop. This is pretty great. What's wrong with that experience as it's currently culturally structured? Guest: Well, of course it is pretty great, and I'm going to say some [?] things about the way museums are managed now. And remember that we are talking about art museums. There's lots to learn about how to run museums as well from science and history museums. So the first thing that I'm going to say is that everybody should go to your local art museum. And look at stuff. And take your time. Because they are full of great stuff. And, you know, it's our visual, cultural patrimony, aside from architecture. That said, so here's some things that seem to me aren't what they should be. One is the striking fact that when we go and study behavior of visitors in museums, the average attention time to a painting is between 6 and 10 seconds. And that can't be right. My mother was a sculptor. And, she didn't expect people to spend 6 seconds looking at her work and then move on to the next one. But a variety of things about the way museums are run and set up tend to encourage this flitting past great stuff to see if there's something even better. One of those is the admission price. When I was growing up, almost all museums were free. And weren't free in the sense that they didn't cost anything to provide, but the admission charge was zero. And you could go in and out for an hour or two, which is an appropriate time to attend to demanding art. But if you spend $20 bucks, or $25--I think the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) is now up to $25 in New York City--you kind of feel like you have to spend a day to get your money's worth. And by halfway through that day, you are pretty much museum'ed out. And you are just plodding along. There's a kind of an odd, de-rationated[?] feeling that you get wandering in these galleries that don't have windows, and you don't know which way north is; and it's just room after room. Russ: I like your analogy to a Las Vegas casino. Guest: Yeah. It's kind of like a casino where they deliberately have no clocks and no way to see out. Russ: Well, it's missing the food and the drinks. But it's there at the end. They are at the end. They are at the end. Guest: Well, there is food and drinks. There is a cafe. When I teach a class in arts and cultural policy at Cal [U.C. Berkeley] and one of the things we do is a museum field trip, where we go to look at the museum as the institution that's presenting art to us as opposed to looking at the art--of course I can't stop them from looking at the art--and we're talking about college students now at a top-level university. A lot of the students volunteer the feeling that they just didn't feel like they belonged. Kind of an imposters' syndrome that I remember most when I [?] at Harvard, and everybody had it. And it seems to me that there's a lot museums could do if they were more imaginative and had a better idea of what the visitor experience is really like, to undo that. Russ: You hit on the right--I think you hit on it very directly in the essay when you described it as the art museum as something of a temple. I think we go there to worship and admire. And as you say, you want to genuflect in front of as many icons as you can. So you tend--I'm definitely in that 6-second group. Until I get to something that I'm told, by somebody else, is "worth seeing." Right? I zip along. I glance at--I'm an ignoramus, by the way. As will be revealed. But--but--I try to like art. I was deprived of it as a child. My parents are not art lovers. They love poetry and music, and I have a wonderful heritage from them. But art was something to be ignored as inexplicable and inaccessible. And as an adult I've tried to get into art. And the museum doesn't help. And I think that's a tremendous insight. There is, as you say, the occasional audio guide. They are remarkably unhelpful. Especially exhibit--when there's a whole bunch of people in the museum who have never been there before who have come to see the Monet or the Egyptians or whatever it is, the level of nonsense and inaccessible academic discourse on those audio guides is remarkable. Guest: Wait a minute. You're not authorized to judge that as nonsense. Russ: That's right. I'm just an amateur. How dare I? Guest: Well, but I think that's actually one big problem with the museum experience, is a kind of a worship. The problem is that museum people and directors are afraid of their collections in a way that science museum people are not. And so the result is that everything is presented as though it's absolutely wonderful. And it's not often very clear because a lot of the discourse on the audio guides and on the labels and tags is written in a kind of art-historical--the language that art experts use to speak to each other about art. And I had a graduate student many years ago who was a nurse, and she took my course in public management and at the end of the course we were chatting about it. And she said she liked the course and there was lots of interesting stuff but it did seem to be again and again about one big idea that they had been taught in nursing school, and the big idea was: Start where the patient is. And that's where I think the presentation and education side of our museums typically fails.
7:19Guest: Now, I have to say: Museums are getting a lot better since I first worked at museums, which was decades ago at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. Which was really at that time, really unfriendly to visitors. I could pass on an anecdote--I don't remember if I put it in that essay, but I did a visitors' survey--the first visitors' survey to my knowledge that got the same people coming and going. And I was able to ask, 'What do you expect to see when you're here?' and then, when they left I could ask, 'What did you see?' And I could correlate this, visitor by visitor with a code number. And I was struck by the fact that lots of people couldn't find what they came to see. The MFA is a pretty big museum and it's now bigger; they've added a fair amount of exhibition space. And the other thing they complained about was that there was no place to sit. And you are walking around, actually probably miles--a day-long visit to a big museum. It's a hike. And I made a map--I was very proud of this--of the museum with all the galleries that had comfortable seating, which I defined to be anything with some upholstery: bright green. And any seating, which would be a bench: light green. And no seating: pink. And chairs on display and no seating: bright red. So I brought this to a staff meeting and all of the decorative arts galleries where all the furniture was on display was bright red. And that was a quarter mile around a loop in that museum. And some little old lady starts in at one end of that and keeps passing by chairs with ropes on them and she can't sit down till she gets out the other end. And I said we should fix this. Russ: Yeah. Well in a lot of galleries I've noticed--and again, for an ignoramus I spend a decent amount of time in art museums. But there are occasionally benches in the middle. And they are often occupied by serious looking folk who are staring at the paintings that are across from them. And there's room for about 6 people. There's about 70 people in the room. Guest: Yes. Russ: And there's 6 of them sitting down comfortable being contemplative; the rest of us are thinking: 'Maybe they'll get up.' Guest: This isn't--there are tradeoffs. I don't think you want to turn an art gallery into an auditorium with comfortable seating--you could sit down and then have the paintings marched by or projected on the wall for you. So this has to be managed. But the curator of those decorative arts galleries 10 minutes into this meeting said, 'Mike, I don't understand why we are spending time on this. If I want to sit down, I can go to my office. I don't need chairs in the galleries.' And as I rarely am, I was kind of speechless. Who are you running this institution for? At that time they were not very conscious of the fact that a large part of their funding was charitable contributions, which are tax deductible and therefore contained a lot of public money. But as I said, museums have changed and gotten more audience-friendly in many ways. But they could do much better. One thing--I don't know. Should we talk about why my hair is a little on fire about this given the resources that they have? Russ: Yeah. Well, I want to read a quote, actually, that I think will kick us off. And I want to introduce the quote by saying that I once heard from Richard Mahoney, the former CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of Monsanto that if you want to know what an institution's mission is, you look at what they do, not what they say that they're mission is. So, what most art museums do is they put art on the wall. That's sort of their mission, I would say, is to display the art. You point out, and here's the quote, coming, that their actual mission is unclear. You write the following:
The purpose of an art museum is more, better engagement with art. Anything a museum does that can't be connected back to this goal is peripheral and incidental.
Which raises the question: What is 'more and better' in the phrase 'more and better engagement with art'? And so, why don't you talk about that? Guest: Sure. Well, let me go back a little bit and talk about the mission or the apparent mission. What museums mostly do is possess art. Any major art museum displays less than 5% of the art it owns at any given time. It will never display more than about 8%. Russ: Which is shocking. Guest: The rest of the collection is in storage. Well, museum people will say, 'Look, our job is to preserve the stuff. And to display it. And given our resources we do the best we can.' But that's what's actually happening. So if you walk around the museum, you can't see what they mainly do with the art they have, because it's not on the wall. And it's worth noting: there's some kinds of art that can't be displayed all the time, like works on paper have a finite lifetime and every minute they are on display is a minute of that lifetime so [?] sort of parse it out over time. But 'more, better engagement with art' is intentionally a complicated formula. It's what my students come up with after we talk about: what are the goals of art policy? What should we hold the government accountable for as it affects the fine arts? And it can mean many different things. It's not a precise optimization formula. Better engagement has to do with the kind of education and introductions that we were talking about, that often isn't there. And 'more,' at the least would have to do with showing more and having the art in places where people would actually see it. So, we've now got a list of things museums could do to be 'more, better': they could hire more educators, they could do actual research on audience behavior and experience. They could build more gallery space and show more of what they have--not necessarily all in the same building, which you now can't see on one visit anyway. It could be spread out. Russ: But as you point out, if you confront a museum director with that encouragement, they'll say, 'Well, we're already spending--we're at the limit. We're broke.'
14:13Guest: Exactly. So, they are resource-constrained. And people do give them money occasionally and they have an endowment and they take the income from the endowment. So, let's look at the financials. What's the financial situation of the museum? And here's where you get a really striking difference between art museums in particular and other high-brow art-presenting institutions. If you look at the balance sheet of a museum, and there's the endowment, which is many--I don't know--hundred million dollars, and they get income from that every year; and that's in stocks and all accounted for properly. And there's the buildings; it's not clear what a used museum building is worth but accountants have ways of valuing unique things. And there's the furniture and equipment and then there's the tractor to mow the lawn, and that's the end of it. And people may have noticed: Where's the collection? Russ: Yeah. I never thought about it. Never looked at the balance sheet of an art museum. That's rather remarkable. Guest: I don't know of any art museum--and I'm happy--and the article has been out, offending museum people, for a few weeks now: nobody's sent me a balance sheet and said, 'Hey, here's ours.' But what's important about this is that the numbers are absolutely breathtaking. And I was able, starting from two museums that have in fact valued their collection. One is our Berkeley Art Museum on the campus here at Cal, which assessed its collection for insurance purposes once, not too long ago. And the then-director was careless enough to tell me what he came up with. And at that time it was three-quarters of a billion dollars. Which is 20%, as I recall, of the total endowment of the U. of California at Berkeley. And the other one is the Detroit Museum, which in the city's bankruptcy because of the accident that the museum is a city agency--in the bankruptcy of Detroit they have to go and say, 'Well, what have we got here?' There was a lot of noise in the art world: 'You what? You think this is an asset of the city?' And yes, it was. And the wealthy citizens of Detroit suburbs who had been enjoying the museum all these years had to step up and take it over. And pay the city for that. Russ: And what was that number? Detroit? Guest: I think it was $8 billion--between $2 billion and $8 billion depending on how you count. The important thing in this is the number of zeros, by the way. Anyway, what I was able to do was say: Let's take the budget of the Berkeley Museum, and the budget of--and I used the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC)--and kind of beat[?] them around the head and shoulders in this article for no fair reason, just because it's where I started, where I had their financials. But this is going to be true of any major art museum--you are going to get similar results. And even more for some. Like the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) is even bigger and richer. So, I was able to take the operating budgets of the museum and use that to scale the collections I had up to the AIC's budget Russ: That's the Art Institute of Chicago. Guest: Yeah. And then I was able to use the number of objects to scale that up. What I got was about $35 billion. Plus or minus $5 or $10. That's a nice piece of coin. And your local symphony orchestra does not have anything like that. Again, it's unique to art museums. And again, let's remember: almost all of it is under ground. And will be for the foreseeable future. So, what could you do with this? I guess my favorite examples are: We could take 1% of that--when the Art Institute expanded its building, and good for them--they can show more art--when they expanded their building a few years ago, they raised their admission price. And there was a big discussion in the press about whether this was right to do this. I think they are now up to $18 for adults. And if you took 1% of that collection--and let's remember what we are doing: we are selling off the bottom, the least valuable, least distinguished works. And it would be way more than 1% of the number of objects. But if you sold 1% you could endow free admission forever. And that strikes me as being a significant operating decision. Now we are looking at a museum that has 99% of what it has now, in value terms; and it's free, all the time. Russ: Which would seem to be--as we know, when prices go down, people tend to do more of those things, and that would seem to be a good thing. Guest: Yeah. They also do it better. Instead of being psychologically trapped in the building for a whole day because it cost so much to get in and you really want to get your money's worth, and by 4 hours you are not getting your money's worth: you are just glazed. The stuff on the walls of a big art museum is demanding and deserves attention. And nobody can do that for 6 hours. So not only do people go more--I think attendance at the British National Museum, when they took the admissions price off and went to $0--which is the right price, for reasons we might get to later--that attendance went up by a third. Maybe more. But the other important thing is that the experience of the people who attended was much better, because--'Let's go see two hours' worth of great art and not feel like we have to see the whole thing. Russ: Or half an hour. Guest: Or come back tomorrow. Or half an hour. Exactly. Lunchtime. Go see my favorite painting. Guest: Go see a great painting. Yeah. Guest: Right. Which is, when I'm in Washington, D.C. and I have half an hour, an hour, and I'm in the neighborhood, I'll go to the National Gallery and visit the Vermeers and then go look for something else I haven't seen for a long time, or haven't ever seen. And then I'll go about my business. And that's a much higher quality art experience. So, there's more, better engagement right there.
20:50Guest: So now I guess we have to talk about the Deaccession Controversy, which is a controversy that has capital letters in it, standard name. And the Controversy is--let me see how I can capture this. When I talked about this to our local museum director here at Berkeley, I had lunch with him when I got into this research. And [?] Larry is a nice guy and means well, but [?] he sort of kept backing up from the table and giving the fish eye, and he says, 'Look, if I ever did that,' and he meant selling art-- Russ: That's the deaccession--it's the-- Guest: Deaccessioning is the fancy name for selling. You could see a tractor, but a painting, you deaccession. Exactly. 'If I ever did that, no one would ever lend my museum a painting for a traveling show or exhibition and I would never be able to lend art work to any other museum.' And the reason for that is that there is an Association of Museum Directors' Code of Ethics. And that's what it says. Russ: It says 'Don't lend somebody a painting if they are so naughty that they sell some of their other paintings'? Guest: Any museum--I'm paraphrasing--it basically says any museum that sells art for any purpose for any purpose other than to buy more art--so it's okay if you have three paintings by Painter A and none by Painter B and you like Painter B and you sell an A painting and buy a B painting. That's okay. But if you ever sell out of the collection for any purpose other than more collecting, then other museum directors are forbidden by this code of ethics to interact with you in any professional way. I think you are not even allowed to have coffee at a conference with them. It's just [?]. And a Code of Ethics sounds kind of like the 10 Commandments: it's a moral guide. Well, it was written by the museum directors, and it's not at all. And I mentioned in the article that once upon a time, lawyers were forbidden by their code of ethics strictly to advertise. That was totally bad behavior for lawyers. And now they are not. There was a court decision that said 'You can't do that.' And lo and behold, we still have lawyers; we still have law, people can sue each other; the republic endures. It turned out it wasn't such a fundamental thing. Television is a little tedious with these lawyer ads, but that's as bad as it's been. So the situation is, as I said, the professionals in charge of art museums have arranged for themselves that they never have to ask these questions. And then we go back to the accountants, that the last time this issue of putting the question in your balance sheet, which is--and I should say that that's the major reform that I'm angling for. I think there are lots of creative and imaginative people in museums who would like to do interesting things with the collection, like label them in a way even I could understand. And give us the right to think, 'Hey, this is a bunch of jive. They are putting this on the wall and it's okay for me to think it's a crock.' And that whole spirit is discouraged. So there's a variety of things that they could do. And what I think my significant contribution here, if there is any, is they have the resources to do this. And the accountants say, 'Well, if you are never going to use this asset as a financial resource and you are not going to borrow money against it and you are never going to sell it, then it doesn't have to be reported. And I think that's wrong. And I think when you report it and you get numbers like these billions-of-dollar collections, then people are going to start asking questions and say, 'This is really a lot of money in art that you don't show. If you allocated your assets properly between the endowment, which throws off money to do things with, and the art, most of which you don't show or do anything with'--I mean, the stuff in the vaults not only isn't going to be shown. It's not going to be written up in art journals. There's just too much. Tens of thousands of objects. So I'm thinking that if we put the facts out there, then there would start to be some conversation. And I guess, you know, people who are listening to this: Here's my short-term advice. Never give a penny to any major art museum that you might be thinking of making--and again, I love art museums and I believe in giving to arts institutions. But don't give any major arts institution a penny until they fix their accounting and report their collections in their balance sheet. And then let's have a conversation about it.
25:58Russ: But as you point out--I think most people who are thinking about this, they think, 'Well, if they sold off some of their collection, say, that isn't being displayed right now, it would be bought by other art museums. So it's really not such a big deal. Where would they put it?' And of course the answer is that there are a lot of museums right now that are small and would love to have some of the "leftovers", the scraps from the great museums. And they are in places that are thirsty for art. And you have a table in your paper, rather remarkable table, of the distribution of Monet paintings in the United States. There's two in Florida. And there's a bunch in Illinois. And a lot of them aren't on display. Guest: Right. So my friend, Gene Smolensky, economist who has written about the economics of art asked me early on in this project: 'Well, it seems to me that the question in this paper is: If we could redistribute all the art in the world to an optimal allocation, would it wind up where it is now?' And that's a rhetorical question because the answer obviously is No, it wouldn't. A lot of this stuff would wind up in places where people could actually look at it. And would love it. 'That's our Monet,' here in Rapid City or something. So if we sold this. Okay, it doesn't all go to other museums. Russ: It could go to a new museum that hasn't started, that doesn't exist right now. You could start a museum, a great museum. Guest: For example. But it also might go to private collectors. It depends on your rules of whom you sell it to; and we could think about those. But a private collector is probably going to put it on the wall, and at least his friends and dinner guests will see it. And the important thing is: Now, nobody is seeing it. So that looks to me like a plus, any way you slice it. Again, if you accept my proposition that the object of the museum enterprise is for people to be engaging with art rather than for museums to be possessing art, then I think all of these questions come to the surface, and that they are real possibilities once we understand how much enormous wealth has been accumulated and isn't being put to use. Russ: So, as an outsider, it's surprising. I would never have guessed the ratios--that it's so much that is not displayed. And I guess my second thought would have been: Okay, so they just sort of rotate it every few years. They display the stuff that isn't on display now--it just might take a few years. But you are suggesting it just never displayed. Guest: Most of it--I mean most, most--will never be displayed. These are secondary works, and there's only so much wall. So maybe 5% is on display now; and another 5% might be pulled out of the vaults at some time in the future. And then of course we have to think: By that time in the future, the way you are operating now, you will have accumulated how much more art? And how many more square feet of wall? You just can't expand forever. And shouldn't. I mean, physically. So now this stuff in the basement that you are not showing now is going to be competing with even more good stuff to get wall space. And I think--you know, when does that time come? The answer is: Never, for a tremendous fraction of this. But again, I'm happy to have this be a more public debate. And here I put it to trustees, who tend to be wealthy business people with experience who are tough-minded analysts of financial reports. And state attorney's general, who are in charge of the proper management of non-profit institutions in the states. And I'd say: Let's talk about it. Let's get the facts out and let's see if we are using this incredible precious patrimony to create the most value. And if we are not, then let's start doing it. That's my expectation, is: Every time I've talked to people about this and we get to the numbers that these collections represent, their pupils dilate and they say, 'What? How much?' Russ: Yeah, it's somewhat shocking. Guest: Everybody in Chicago has what is--three and a half million people in the metropolitan area and $35 billion, like three thousand dollar [?] endowment sitting in the basement of this museum. Russ: I think there's more than 3 and a half million people in the metropolitan area. But I take the point. Guest: Yeah.
30:49Russ: Let's talk about the pricing. Because I think the--you talked about that the admission price should be zero. And as an economist I'm of course sympathetic to that; and some economists should say you should be wary of it. But let's-- Guest: I want to review the-- Russ: Yeah, go ahead. Guest: So, I'm not an economist. I'm an architect and my Ph.D. is in engineering. But, I've had the very good fortune in my whole professional career to hang out with economists. And almost all of them have been happy to teach me a lot of economics. And maybe I don't get this right. But the one thing it seems to me that economists wake up--if you wake them up in the middle of the night and say, 'Hey, what's the most important thing?' They will say, 'Marginal cost pricing.' That the way to make a market work properly is that everything should be offered for sale at its marginal cost, which is the cost of someone using it. And that's why you can walk on the sidewalk and not have to buy a ticket. Because when you walk on the sidewalk there is no less sidewalk for anyone else. And that's why the fare on most transit systems is much too high. Because when you ride it and it's not rush hour and there are empty seats, you are not consuming anything by sitting in the seat. And so you ought to get the right price signal. Well, except for a few museums in the world--I'm thinking of the Uffizi, MOMA in New York, the Louvre lately--apparently it's getting over-crowded--but except for a very few museums, if you go, there's a little extra wear and tear on the floors. And there's some labor--it's hard to imagine what else is required. You might cause some damage to something. But basically, you are not taking anything away from anyone else. You can look at your painting; somebody else looks at their painting. And the short economic analysis: well, the marginal cost for an additional museum is that in a museum that's not congested now, it's zero. And it's really important that people get the right price signals about what they do. And they do the right amount of it. Russ: Yeah. I agree with most of that. The only issue, with the terms of the transit, is that the question is should the user bear some of the cost of--the capital costs, right?--and that would be the same issue with, say, software, and many, many things that high up-front costs and very small costs per user after the fact. But in this case-- Guest: I want so badly to draw a picture right now. Russ: That's okay. Resist it. But in this case, the issue: Presumably, maybe most of the people, maybe all of the people who donated the paintings, and who paid for the building, often, did so not with the goal of making money. They did so with the goal of having art being available to the public. Guest: Right. Russ: So, in the absence of, say, a high-traffic special exhibit, you'd think that the argument should be--pretty close to zero would be a pretty good idea, in the interests of people who funded the enterprise. Which raises the question: The current policies, that are not that way, would presumably be justified along the lines that I just said. If you were to confront the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, I assume the director would say: 'It's true it's better to have zero, because when it's not crowded--and we do! On Tuesday nights it's free'--I'm sure they have a free afternoon or a day, which they do at many museums. But they say, 'The rest of the time we need that to pay for our activities. We need to pay our salaries. We need to pay my salary.' Guest: But they don't. Because they've got this tremendous asset they've got locked up that should be redeployed to create more value. Russ: So, I agree with you. Now: the question is then, that seems logical: What stops the director of the museum--who else besides you, public academic, public intellectual, or me, host of EconTalk? We're holding their feet to the fire. But we're not very close to the fire. So, the trustees and others--who does the director report to? Who is the director responsible to, that might speak this language? Guest: Well, legally, the Trustees. And above that, again, the State Attorney General. Because this is a non-profit institution. And that's who is in charge of making sure that non-profits do what they are supposed to do. These are educational nonprofits. There are a bunch of categories under which you can get the tax exemption which allows donors to give you--to deduct the gift from their income, which immediately attaches a public subsidy, because someone else pays the taxes that you don't pay. Russ: Yep. Guest: So, but I think that's also kind of PR [Public Relations]. I put that article out there to get people talking over dinners and nice places about whether they are really doing their job. And one thing that struck me: When I worked at a museum, I was really struck by the willingness of these, mostly tough-minded museum boards, to just their brains and their critical faculties kind of turn to mush in the presence of art. Russ: It's intimidation. Yeah. Guest: There's sociology-- Russ: Even if the director doesn't say so, he implies, she implies: 'You don't know what you're talking about. This is my area, not yours.' Guest: And remember: a Director has a fair amount of influence on who the Trustees are. The Boards tend to be self-replicating. But the Director is there every day chatting with people. The former Director of the Met, Thomas Hoving, is famous for saying, I think it was Thomas Hoving, who said, 'The most important qualification to be a Trustee is the ability to write a check for $3 million dollars. Russ: Absolutely. Guest: And I think if we had more Trustees who were artists, and if members of the museum could elect a Trustee--this is another bizarre thing about museums. They have this thing called 'Membership.' Russ: Yeah, I love that observation. So, go ahead. Guest: And so everything--I'm a member of the Faculty of the U. of California and the Democratic Party of California and my Neighborhood Improvement Association. I get to vote on governance. That's sort of what it means to be a member. And our[?] institutions generally--membership is a quantity discount for admission and invitation to events and parties. But there's no relation to governance, in any museum I'm aware of. And that would help--select a couple of Trustees and get the visitors' views in those Board rooms, where they are making operating decisions.
38:09Russ: So, one of the issues here, of course, hovering in the background, is what we might call group think. Most of the Directors come from a certain experience--career experience, certain educational experience. And what you are saying is weird to them. Well, it's threatening. But it's also just weird. It's dismissible because it's so outside the box. It raises the question of whether you, Michael O'Hare, would be a good candidate. You, literally you, or someone else--could start a museum with a different philosophy. From scratch. A different philosophy of interaction, a different philosophy of collecting, a different philosophy of displaying. That could happen. And maybe it will happen. But what's stopping that? If anything? Guest: Well, so okay: you do have to have a collection to have a museum. Although I would say: Keep your eye on, for example, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which is at an interesting stage in its development. I guess we should talk a little bit about the sociology of this business. It's going to be a little roundabout but I'll try to get back to your question. Pierre Bourdieu wrote a wonderful book called Distinction in which he's characterized the art world as a stalemated battle for dominance between two elites. And one is the elite of money, people who are rich, and the other is the elite of education and taste. Russ: Yep. Guest: And it has been historically--although much was true now, and this is a big problem for the arts, a big looming problem, I think--but it has historically been the case that if you made a lot of money it was made clear to you that there was kind of a richesse oblige expectation that you were going to get yourself on the museum board and write a big check; or the symphony board. And that you should present yourself as having some acquaintance with the fine arts, to establish social standing. But to do that, because you don't have much time, because you are making money--that's your job--you have to go to the educational elite of art dealers, curators of museums, university professors, to find out what's good. And to buy the right art. And to have opinions about the new piece played at the symphony or the opera. So, giving art to a--I'm thinking about an art collector now. So, one of the things that people have done when they accumulate wealth is that they often, for most sincere reasons, they fall in love with art and they start buying it. And then they find that they have more art than they can show in their house or in their summer house. And they start looking for a place to give it away. And the obvious place is a museum. And if you can arrange to give your collection to a very high-status museum like the Met or the AIC, then you get more social status. Russ: Points. Score points. Guest: Absolutely. So, as I said, this is becoming less true. Larry Ellison has not endowed a museum, but he has bought an island in Hawaii to do I'm not sure what with. The new wave of rich people hasn't entirely bought into this traditional expectation. So, you take your collection-- Russ: One of the reasons they haven't is that the best works of art have already been bought by somebody, given away to museums. So they need a new way to-- Guest: Well, certainly the best old art. Russ: Yeah. Guest: But painters are still painting. Russ: Fair enough. Guest: And the talent is out there. So these are mostly collectors of modern works. And they will literally set museums against each other and say, 'Well, if I give you my collection, will you promise to display it? With my name on it?' And the Museum Director says, 'Gee, we really don't like to make those commitments.' And the donor says, 'Well, then we'll go down the street.' So, getting back to SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), the history in California is kind of interesting because at the end of the 19th century the elite movers and shakers in San Francisco decided that they had made for themselves a world-class cultural city. In fact, it was the equal of Paris, if you thought about it. I mean, it was really right up there. And they told each other the story. And never did anything about it, to speak of. And woke up after WWII--meanwhile, in Los Angeles [LA], a city characterized by a constant sense of cultural insecurity-- Russ: Yup. Guest: Rich people in Los Angeles were collecting and building museums and funding the symphony and there's always lots of theater in LA because of the movie industry. So, the movers and shakers in San Francisco woke up after WWII and said, 'Oh, my gosh: we have a third-rate opera, a second-rate symphony, a third-rate museum. And what do we do?' They fixed the top-level performing arts institutions, with money and attention; and we now have a first-rate symphony, for example, and an excellent dance company. But it was too late to fix the museum. Because all of the-- Russ: The good stuff was taken. Guest: The classic stuff had been collected and put in other museums. So, SFMOMA is starting out with a splendid photography collection and not a world-class art collection. And they've had to take a different path. And the next thing that happened was that they were given this very large collection and money to build the size that they're building. And they had to close for two years. So now everything at SFMOMA has been kind of thrown up in the air while they were operating, you know, out of garages and temporary quarters here and there. And I don't remember her exact title, but she's sort of the outreach and education curator, and she is full of interesting creative ideas about how a museum that isn't trapped by having this world class [?] collection can make itself a real community resource. So, I expect all sorts of interesting things to come out of that experiment. That's not a new museum. But it's a museum reinventing itself. Other than that, your idea--okay, start a new museum? Well, it's really expensive. You build a building and you have to start collecting; and you are going to have to start collecting in niches that haven't been already mined. But if the big museums that are keeping all this stuff away from us would put it out there, then there's prospects of actually doing that. And you are not going to have an Art Institute of Chicago-class collection to start. But you could have a very good art experience for people in small towns and small cities that have no prayer of having that happen now. Russ: And of course one of the reasons that there's not more pressure on those museums--well, this isn't quite true, but what I was going to say is if you are in a state that doesn't have a Monet and you want to see a Monet, you've got to go to it. But that doesn't help explain why they keep the ones in the basement. Guest: Right. Russ: That's just a waste. Guest: And it's not just Monets. If you sort of go one level down the famous scale, or two levels down, they are keeping six and seven in the basement. The Berkeley Art Museum is famous for having--I don't remember the exact numbers, but a lot of Hans Hofmanns. Maybe half of the half of the Hans Hofmanns in the world. The artist's collection when he died, I think, went to our museum. So, that's totally inappropriate. There's no reason--and we don't show but one or two. There's no reason at all why a small museum, especially an educational museum, should be so overloaded with the work of one artist, and not that important an artist, and they could have a much better educational, much more varied collection, if they weren't afraid to clean out three-quarters of those and buy a bunch of different stuff.
46:54Russ: So, let me turn us to a slightly different question, which is how one might experience an art museum in a better world. And I'm going to give you a couple of ideas, and then I want to hear your ideas. So, right now, there's--I'm often guilty of the 6-second thing. I did learn from my colleague and EconTalk guest, Tyler Cowen, that when you enter a gallery it's a good idea to pick one piece that you'd like to take home and try to understand why, if you could take it home, what that would be your choice. The other thing I would think about is-- Guest: I should point out, by the way, that trying to understand why you'd like to take it home takes 10 minutes, not 10 seconds. Russ: Right. Guest: Or maybe even an hour. Russ: Well, the first time it might take 10 seconds: 'I like the look of that and I'm done. I picked that one.' But thinking about it seems like it would be a useful thing. But the other thought I had, which I think is the strangest thing--and you alluded to it indirectly, I think in the article--is, if I go into an art museum, I want to see the famous things. Like you said. I want to go, and at the National Gallery I want to see the 12 things that they tell you to see. And I walk by the 3000 things that aren't told to me as important. They don't get 6 seconds, by the way. They get 2 seconds or I don't even go in the room. And it strikes me that--if we think about music. Think about music. It's like, okay, we're going to listen to Beethoven's Ninth because everybody agrees it's one of the greatest pieces of all time. But there's other music. And you could like it more than Beethoven's Ninth, because of your personal tastes. But in art, you feel really guilty--you feel, well, I like that more than the famous one. And yet, you feel like, as you said, I'm not worthy of making that judgment. But of course you are. Guest: Well, you are and you aren't. I think--I have a lot of respect for--I mean, my taste in art has changed a lot, having, for example, when I worked at the MFA every now and then the curators would take me around their galleries and talk about their stuff. Usually they were trying to find a way that they could either get more gallery space or get the air conditioning installed sooner or something. But they just can't stop talking about their stuff. And they know so much. And it's so interesting. And that's--I said, 'Holy cow, there's got to be some way to make this kind of experience more--walking around in front of paintings something more like having a really educated thought.' I do not disrespect connoisseurship and expertise in art. I've learned a lot from books and from people who really know stuff. And it changed my tastes. And also, I've learned, and I think many people have learned whether you like something is kind of the least interesting. So, what's the conversation most likely to run aground within 30 seconds. It's the intermission conversation after a concert. And somebody says, 'Wow, did you like the Schubert?' And then the other person says, 'Well, I liked the Brahms better.' Russ: That's over. Guest: Okay. Did you truly learn anything? Russ: Right. Guest: So-- Russ: I didn't mean to suggest that you could just say, 'I like the green of that painting, therefore I am right, or whatever. I understand that there's learning to be done. It's a process. Presumably what you liked when you first started to going to museums is not the same. As you said, you've learned. Guest: And there's also--I mean, art links to other things that people who are already interested in a variety of different ways. And one thing I tax[?] museums for is that they take advantage of it so little. All the art supplies in the museum store and the children's section. And every museum I'm familiar with. Now, what's the message here? I've never seen--it's not just museums. I've never seen a score or sheet music for sale at the intermission shop of the symphony. I've never seen stage makeup or scripts for sale at the intermission shop of the theater. Well, there's a strong lesson here that real art is done for you by experts. And you just, you passively consume it. And I think as people get their hands dirty, you went to the museum and you say somebody making art. Much of which has interesting technical aspects. And they are like shade tree mechanics [?], and basement woodworkers who like to make stuff and would be interested in--what's an engraving? What does that turn into a piece of paper? Well, we could see that. Only if only in videos. But the artist has been extracted from the process. Second thing we don't learn about, for example, is the whole socio-economic structure of how it gets made, sold, traded, and exchanged. You go to a museum and you just have no idea that this is a large business with auctions and dealers. What they ask an art dealer, interested? Here's some art dealers. When you go to a sale gallery, what should you do? And again: visitor at a museum gets none of this. And that's too bad. Because it could enrich the experience in many ways.
52:36Russ: When--after my wife and I had been married for a few years, we both decided to teach ourselves how to draw. Guest: Good for you! Russ: I was a C student in art, until about 6th grade, or 7th, when we of course stopped taking it. And I "knew"--I "knew"--quote--I couldn't draw. And my wife, similarly had mediocre drawing ability. So that was being like playing, saying to us: Well, you can't play tennis, because you are not good at it. But of course most things, if you practice them, you get better. And so, we picked up a copy of the book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which is a phenomenal book. And we started at night taking a little time and learning how to draw. My wife became a painter. And she's also a math teacher. But she paints. And I ended up--though I taught myself how to draw, and by that I think it's important to describe what that means. If you said to me, 'Draw a horse,' I can't do it. If you gave me a picture of a horse or showed me a horse, I could actually learn to draw it. I could even draw my own likeness or the likeness of a friend, so that it could actually be recognized as that person. And so, I have no talent. In the sense that I can't just draw from scratch. And people who are gifted, of course can do that, and do all kinds of wonderful things beyond what I can do. But that got me interested in photography. And, what art, photography, painting, drawing, sculpture--what it does it teaches you how to see; and it changes the way that you look at the world. So, why don't we close with your first paragraph of your essay, where you say that art policy might be the most important policy facing the United States. I'm not sure I agree with you, but I love the point you are trying to make there. Guest: Yeah, well, it's a semi-joke that I tell my students when I am recruiting them to take the Arts Policy Class. Most people agree that health policy is really important. And I would respond by saying, 'Well, if life isn't worth living, why would you want to make it longer?' Russ: Can't agree more. Guest: Sorry? Russ: Couldn't agree more. You are right. The next part doesn't necessarily follow. But it suggests that it's not unimportant. Guest: Well, you have to recognize that policy--and also let's recognize that in the United States we have this unique situation where arts policy is not merely a matter of government. Arts--because we put our arts institutions into this distinctive American, non-profit, sort of semi-governmental structure-- Russ: Quasi. Guest: Yeah. You know, if you work at a museum in France you are a civil servant and it's a government agency. If you work in a museum in the States you work for a private organization that has special rules and tax benefits. So, art policy is made by non-profits, that aren't actually part of government. But it's still important. So, it's a larger system. Russ: Yeah. I view that as a plus. But I certainly also-- Guest: It may well be. Russ: But I also agree with you that the culture that sustains those organizations and that colors them is open for conversation. Which is what we are doing now. Guest: Yeah. Well, good. And I think the more, the better. I guess, if I get a tagline that is: How would we think about museums if we recognize what they mainly do, which is to collect art and have it, isn't what society has charged them with? What we desire to charge them with is to maximize the quality of engagement with rewarding art? And if you take that standard, I think there's a lot of low-hanging fruit and opportunities to create all kinds of value, that--and I think it would also be more fun to run a museum that had that richer purpose. Russ: Yeah. And again, part of that is the culture that also exists around being a director. And I've known some people in that world. And it has its own accouterments and honors and sources and pride. And it would be great, maybe, if they were a little bit different. And that's not easy to change, obviously. That's an emergent, bottom-up phenomenon that comes from centuries of all kinds of things we can't fully understand. But I think an innovator--I actually don't want to miss this chance. I want to mention an innovation I want to encourage somehow. We talked about the audio guides. So, if you go to a fancy travelling exhibit, there is always an audio guide. And again, as an educator, I always marvel at their opacity at times. And not just opacity--it's not just I'm not technically trained. The words--sentences don't always make sense. And it's not just because I don't know the vocabulary. There's a certain grandeur there that is a little too grand. But there's a new thing I've noticed, because of smartphones. I was in the National Gallery, maybe 6, 7 weeks ago, with my wife. And while I was there, I downloaded the App for the National Gallery. Which let me point my smart phone at certain pieces on the wall, not part of the travelling exhibit but part of the permanent collection, and learn about them. And I was underwhelmed. I learned a few things that were useful. But I was underwhelmed. Guest: In the content? Russ: By the content. Guest: Yeah. Russ: I loved the idea of it; I loved the creativity of it. But it strikes me there's an enormous entrepreneurial opportunity there for an "amateur"--meaning a non-employee--to create their own. Their own idiosyncratic--maybe it's Tyler Cowen, maybe it's somebody else. Maybe it's you. Or ideally it's the director, who doesn't farm it out to the so-called expert but gives you that behind-the-scenes, passionate, here's-what-I-love about my collection. And it could be that that's one of 4, or 15, that you get to choose from. So, I think technology gives us some hope for some creativity there. Guest: I agree. And I think, also I think, the Google Museum program--I forget now what it's called, but it's like Google Streets. And what it allows you to do is walk around, I think a couple hundred museums. And you just walk down the wall and the paintings go by. And many of them, if you click on them, they are available in very high resolution. And you don't have to leave your house. Well, that's not always good. It's good to get out. But you can go to museums halfway around the world. And I agree with you that we are just beginning to learn how to use these technological opportunities. And the idea that that phone/barcode/image-recognition guide doesn't have to be from the museum you are in. It could be my friend, the art history professor. Russ: Right--who is engaging and funny. Guest: Who is in the business of educating. And you could just go online and download it and take it with you to the museum, and get another perspective. I think that's a great idea.
1:00:12Russ: Yeah. I think it's coming. Guest: And we could afford to buy all of this stuff at almost no cost. Russ: Correct. Somebody has to put in that time, maybe for the glory; they could sell it maybe for $1.99. Guest: Museums could fund it. They just, you know, clean up their basements. Russ: So, last question. You've talked about how a director might push his chair away from the table. When you talk, even subconsciously, that this is somewhat threatening to their culture at least if not their livelihood or job. Has anybody reacted enthusiastically, besides me, to your article? Who's got some power? Guest: Who has got some power? Russ: Yeah. Who has got influence in the art world, in the museum world? Guest: Not to me. Um, whether these guys are passing it around and saying, 'Oh, my God, did you see this?' I don't know. And there are couple of people who work in museums who have said, 'Yeah, this is just what we need.' Then, people, not--so I guess it's fair to say this. One of the best books about the art world is in fact called Art Worlds, by Howard Becker, a sociologist who is also a jazz pianist and a photographer--and I mean it at a professional level. And he lives in San Francisco, and I've been using his textbook in class. And I thought, 'Gee, he might be interested in this.' So I sent him a copy of the article. And he thought it was really interesting. Russ: That's encouraging. Guest: So, if you get a little bit outside the echo chamber--and Becker is a guy whose opinion I really respect, so that made my day, or my week--I think there is some real interest. But, you know, my plea is that if anyone listening to this is an art museum trustee, the next time you go to a trustee's meeting, act like a businessman. Act like you do at the office, where you made your money, and demand value for money. And ask questions about administrative decisions that haven't been exposed to the light. And see what happens.


COMMENTS (23 to date)
August writes:

Museum directors who sell items under their care also tend to go to jail. This is because, very often, the person who donated the work donated it with strings attached- i.e. it was donated expressly for display at that particular museum.
Directors who want to sell stuff have to find the owner, which sometimes means tracking down the heir of the original donor.

In most cases, it would be wise to assume the museum doesn't own it at all, but has instead entered into a sort of rental relationship with the original owner. The museum must care for and display for the work, while the owner gets whatever intangibles one gets from having the art he owns on public display. Exceptions should be explicitly written down. In some cases the museum may have bought an item outright, in which case the director likely has the leeway to sell it, but for many of these items, this will not be the case.

Maybe this will sound better when I listen to it, but from the transcript, it looks like this guy is not really understanding the problems surrounding deaccession.

Jason writes:

I am surprised I did not hear the word cartel in the interview. The art museums activity sound like a cartel limiting the supply of available art to increase the price.

Vincent writes:

Interestingly, the local museum, the Fitchburg Art Museum (Fitchburg, Mass), gives voting privileges to its members. The Boston MFA does not. Both are non-profits. Not sure what the FAM's endowment is, but I'm sure they'd love to take a few pieces off the MFA, especially to enrich their photographic collection.

Ak Mike writes:

Great podcast. August - you don't really mean what you said, that directors go to jail? Can you give even a single example of a museum director going to jail for selling donated art? I can't imagine that there is anything criminal in doing that. And by your logic, they would go to jail for not displaying the art, yet according to Prof. O'Hare, well over 90% of museum art is not displayed.

August writes:

Ak,

This was told to me by a professor. The problem with googling around for museum directors in jail is that there seem to be museums in jails and/or museums about jails, which complicate the search. There was, of course, a specific case to which she was referring. Someone did actually go to jail. I just can't remember details unique enough to penetrate Google's fog.

pwnguin writes:

O'Hare does address this in the article. His article lays out the proposal better than an interview could. To summarize:

1. Require that museums account for their artwork assets.
2. Have the tax code treat artwork donation with sale restrictions less favorably than unrestricted donations.

Nowhere does he advocate breaking existing covenants. But his framework would likely encourage sales, and discourage covenants against sales.

My question is: you have a huge set of art that nobody ever sees, who's market value is arrived at by byzantine methods, for which the donor receives substantial tax breaks for. It seems entirely possible that inability to pay operating costs by liquidating a fraction of your warehouse could reveal some sort of fraud, either in not having the artwork, or having essentially given someone a tax break worth substantially more than the artwork itself turned out to be.

JoelShoe writes:

A couple thoughts, from the perspective of someone with a trusts and estates background:

1. Donors do attach strings to their gifts (like "you can't sell it"). It's unclear to me how often this happens.

2. Even if a work of art has restrictions on sale, I would assume that those restrictions could be removed or modified by a court. In Illinois, you would have to involve the Attorney General's office in the proceeding, but theories like "equitable modification" get used a lot in the area of charitable trusts. People tend to recognize the value of a little flexibility when it comes to these arrangements, which are often perpetual. Obviously there's a risk that things can be overdone (Barnes Foundation, anyone?).

August writes:

It is pretty much as I was afraid it was.

A similar thing has happened to libraries. Once, long ago, libraries were a private affair, and some wealthy person who noticed his own self-directed education had improved his life decided he would like a similar thing to be available to others. So he builds a library and hires a bureaucrat to manage it.

Bureaucrats function best with an owner breathing down their necks, but they don't enjoy being accountable, so they do what they can to insulate themselves from owners. For libraries, many are now mostly funded by tax payers. Free from the philanthropist's narrow goals, and free from the need to make a profit, new markers of success are chosen- like circulation stats. The catalog becomes swollen with popular movies, badly written erotica, and some libraries are even renting out videogames.
The original intent is forgotten, and everyone lives under the impression that a library is obsolete due to the internet, as people forget that humans need a place to come across new things- things they are unlikely to find on facebook, assuming the local library is acting like a functional library and not trying to replicate Barnes & Nobles and Netflix like they do now.

So, I'm guessing O'Hare doesn't even think the wishes of the donors are relevant, and even though his cause of exposing more people to art seems a good one, his plan is likely to cause problems- i.e. a drift from what the museum's core purpose is towards whatever gets more of the public through the doors. As I have pointed out to some of my colleagues, a free keg of beer will get people in too.

In any case, I am sympathetic with the idea that museums should be free, or at least much cheaper, and that it is good to have seating in various places for little old ladies to rest, etc... I just don't think looking at alleged valuations of the collections is a good place to go hunting for funds. This would begin a very unfortunate slide in a similar direction that libraries have taken.

Ak Mike writes:

JoelShoe - wouldn't restrictions imposed by the donor reduce the writeoff value of the donation, by reducing the value of the gift?

Also, there is no doubt these restrictions can be lifted by court action - check out the Barnes Foundation, a $25 billion collection of impressionist art in Philadelphia, where the trust establishing it was busted in court a few years ago.

Robert F writes:

I'll agree that wall plaques often use "artspeak" that is inaccessible to the average museum goer.

BUT, this is rarely true for docent-led tours and audio tours, which aren't opaque or stuffy. I have found these methods to be collegial, informative, and often immersive.

Examples include an audio tour with Brubeck proceeding a discussion of a jazzy Stuart Davis painting, or the docent who pointed out this huge Bierstadt painting in front of you with amazing details was actually painted very quickly.

Michael Byrnes writes:

August,

I can kind of get that the big pieces on display at a Museum might have been donated with those kind of strings attached.

But O'Hare suggests that as much as 90% of a museum's collection will never be displayed.

Would donors really prefer to have their donation gathering dust (not literally) in the basement of the Met rather than on display at a lesser museum?

I suppose they could have other reasons for opposing a sale (they might want a cut or tot ake it back and sell it themselves) but it still strikes me as odd that they would want to donate art to somewhere famous where it will never be seen by anyone.


joe b writes:

It was somewhat distressing to hear what I thought was economic drivel on this podcast: either it was nonsense (and my esteem for this show is wounded) or it wasn’t and yet I thought it was (and my self-esteem takes a hit).

And the possible nonsense was this: Professor O’Hare says museums should be allowed to sell their stuff, for some, AIC for example, have billions sitting in the basement.

Yet RR did not interject that the whole reason the collection is/might be worth $35b is because museums are not allowed to sell!

It is the same with any contraband: once you let the market function, you get a true price. I would imagine that if museums were allowed to sell, you’d see trades but really no more cash entering the system (the kind that pays operating expenses and allows for no-charge admission)

It was also disappointing to not hear anything about the artificial scarcity of masterpieces, enforced probably by the same Association code of ethics: namely, the rules/norms barring the display of a copy that is so good that you would need a gas chromotographer and a microscope to detect its false provenance. If the experience of looking at art is about the art, and not its celebrity, then we can truly bring art to the masses by expanding The Museum of Art Fakes (in Vienna) and taking its show on the road!

Schepp writes:

Thank you for the great podcast. Dr. O'Hare was both awesome and misguided, but sometimes these two things come together.

His awesomeness comes from bringing to light how inefficient great museum are at bringing art to the masses. Following his lead my wiki level search of how the New York Met Museum funds are distributed is as follows:

Ticket Sales: $31 million annually
Donations: $130 million annually
Endowment: $2.5 Billion=$175 million annualize @ 7%
Collection: $250 Billion=$1.8 billion annualize @ 7%

The saying Dr. Roberts and Dr. O'Hare discussed was if you want to know someones priorities look at what they do. I remember it differently or may be a different saying:

If you want to know someone’s priorities look at their budget.

Taking that advice, I think, we can answer why Dr. O'Hare was so right about the poor museum experience. The revenues above show that the ticket purchasing folks make up less than 1% of available revenue, and likely receive about that much attention.

That is why O'Hare' piece was most beautiful, however part of the proposed solution seems anti-economic. Making museums free could make ticket holders seat at the table even further diminished because they are not in the paying customer status at all.

The big payers are the painting donors and secondarily endowment makers. These are the true power player and they are the shareholders and the board members that decide how to run the Met.

O'Hare was super at showing how tax write-offs with restrictions enable the painting owners to confer value at a much lower price than face value. Jason's comment above is excellent in the same manner.

O'Hare's transparency and selling of art proposal seemed like real steps in the right direction. I would add renting instead of loaning would seem to open up other museum access to better art. But I expect that nothing much would change. Questioning the non-profit status of an organization that seems to do so little in making art available may have a more significant affect.

For my misguided section, I am sure I am the goofball that averages the 8 seconds a painting. I probably would gain more value from telling people that I saw a Monet than gained from the seeing the painting. While not high-brow that is why I very occasionally pay to go into an art museum. I suggest that there is nothing wrong with this method of experience for a great many patrons.

Lastly, Pubic Transit is not efficient for much the same reason art museum provide bad service. The users pay less than a majority of the costs. O'Hare reasoning for paying marginal price would indeed let most people, just pay for the gas and driver during their trip, but watch out for the unlucky passenger who pays $500,000 for his trip that puts the new hybrid bus on the route to address the increased demand.

Daniel Barkalow writes:

I think the average time per piece is not nearly as important a metric as the distribution of times. The average time is obviously just the length of time you're willing to stand up divided by the number of pieces you don't avert your eyes from while you pass, which is more a matter of endurance than art appreciation. If you spend a couple of minutes each on the most interesting (to you) 5% of the art, and only pay attention to the rest long enough to decide it's not that interesting, you've probably gotten as much out of the experience as you can without a really good guide and a large number of visits, but you've still only spent 6-10 seconds per piece.

Last time I was at a famous museum, I spend nearly the whole time staring at a huge abstract piece trying to decide why I liked it more than I'd like random paint splotches, and then I walked through couple of rooms full of O'Keeffes on the way out before the museum closed, just to see something different from what I'd seen coming in. And I only got to the piece I wanted to spend time on by scanning a lot of other art that didn't grab me.

It's also worth noting that a vast collection of works that will mostly never be shown allows a curator to find just the right work for an exhibit, when there wouldn't have been any reason to keep that particular work beforehand or any a priori way to distinguish it from the rest of the collection that wouldn't be as good in that context. So keeping a lot of art you will turn out never to have shown is not necessarily useless, although it's obviously less beneficial than more people seeing more art.

August writes:

Michael,

I do not think the original donors would be happy with the current state of affairs. I regard 90% of the collection being hidden away as something that benefits the bureaucrat. The easiest way to bring these out- the ones that can actually withstand public display- would be for those with larger collections to loan items to smaller museums.

If you think in terms of bureaucrat, you can see why we have these ridiculously large museums with even larger collections- it keeps the bureaucrat in high status for there is a lot of prestige that comes with managing such a large collection. But if all the dead donors were to suddenly come alive, or send a representative, they would crack a few heads and suggest that, clearly, there should be more museums- and smaller ones. Business owners tend to open new shops rather than continually enlarging the original one, but for a museum director, that means sharing status with many other museum directors. Worse still, one of those other museum directors might have the effrontery to out-compete, or cater to the middle class, and open the organization up to accusations of being a chain.

O'Hare's suggestions look like a quick way to get the museums back on track, but it is, in fact, a way for the bureaucrats to insulate themselves even more from the cares of donors and the viewing public. They would become even larger tyrants and use their new powers to accrue even more status for themselves.

David writes:

I wonder to what extent the economic value of museum collections and of artwork generally would decline if the significant restrictions on supply were ameliorated by the mechanisms that O'Hare suggests. Both the cartel like behavior of the museum directors as (Jason notes) as well as the "regulatory" impositions of donor mandates or museum policy impose restrictions on supply and presumptively inflate observed values in the trading market. I wonder what would happen to prices in a much more liquid market. I note that once again we see how a reasonably liquid, free market can markedly enhance overall utility...or in this case the opposite.

Even with free admission the "price" of going to a museum is extraordinarily high. We love the Chicago Art Institute but just getting downtown, dealing with parking, etc. turns a one hour quality visit into a three or four hour ordeal and further drives the sense of needing to "get one's money's worth" once you're there. Too bad some of those paintings in the basement weren't more liberally distributed across Chicagoland (or the midwest) in smaller venues where a broader population could see them in bite sized one hour chunks in their own neighborhood or suburb.

Kevin writes:

Valuation and Supply.

Several times in the episode there were references to a lack of supply of "classic" paintings. This suggests an alternative reason why it is in the interest of museums to hoard. This makes the items that they do display that much more "valuable." Displaying a rare piece of artwork is very prestigious (and possibly financially lucrative). If there were more small museums displaying a work by, e.g. Monet, ( as was suggested in the podcast) then the big museums wouldn't be as impressive. So, the big museums with the larger acquisition budgets have a perverse incentive to hoard.

Also, if museums were to start selling off their collections, then I suspect those astronomical valuations mentioned would tank quite dramatically. Again this would hurt the big museums. Headlines for museum shows usually look like "Museum displays gazillion dollar painting in special exhibit."

Mort Dubois writes:

Some random thoughts:

- I suspect that the value of collections follows a long-tail distribution, i.e. the bulk of the monetary value resides in a small minority of the pieces. So selling the mediocre stuff in storage may not raise much money (not even considering the effect on price of a sudden increase in supply.)

- One of the reasons that museums don't display every painting that they own by famous artists is that even the best artists produce a lot of bad art. If you don't believe me, check out the Renoirs at the Barnes Foundation collection in Philadelphia.

- Speaking of the Barnes, there's a good example of a collector setting up his own museum and setting his own rules for display, which eventually proved too restrictive for easy access by the public. The Philadelphia art elite managed to persuade a local judge to invalidate Barnes' will, which very clearly expressed his wishes for his possessions, and essentially let the city steal the whole collection "for the good of the public and the city". So now it's in a more convenient place, and much easier to visit. Which is fine if public confiscation of private goods doesn't bother you.

- Russ, I love your idea of independently produced museum labels and audio tours.

- I've always wanted a chance to vote on each piece in the museums I visit - should this be on display? It would be interesting to see the results, particularly in the modern art section.

-I think that museums do a very poor job of displaying the creativity of ordinary people. Think of custom motorcycles, or tattoos, or houses with amazing Christmas light displays. All legitimate forms of expression, never acknowledged by artistic elites as being worthy of notice.

Thanks for another interesting hour.

Matt writes:

This was a very interesting episode. The central idea of the paper, that the purpose of a museum is to create engagement with the art, could be turned into a metric. A piece of art sitting in the basement that no one sees is 0 points. A piece in the gallery that a hundred people see is 100 points. Maybe you put in a qualitative adjustment, based on market value of the pieces.

This could incentivize exactly what O'Hare was talking about; 1) pushing stored pieces out of the basement either as display or sell, 2) creating engaging programs, 3) dropping admissions.

john writes:

The Great Courses has a course on "How to look at and Understand Great Art". Some of the lectures include:
Point of View
Color
Lines
Space, Shapes, Shades and Shadows
Composition
Perspective
Time and Motion
Texture and Light
Along with lectures on the different time periods and how they used the above along with painting materials, printmaking, etc..

I do not know why art museums couldn't adapt the same categories for different rooms to help the student understand and give examples of these principles and techniques -- how the artist would of created their art, walking the visitor from first principles, through the basics, then onto the different time periods. They could also have hands on rooms whereby using one of the principles the visitor could give it a shot, perhaps even hanging the best drawing or painting every week...

My family and I visited an art museum that was fun because they showed how projections were used to make the sketches and let the visitor try tracing using the same technique.

Along that line of thinking, you could have a jet engine at the museum whereby visitors could throw paint up into the air and have it blown by the engine onto a collective canvas... perhaps the museum could share the revenue from selling the painting for millions of dollars with the participants...

Arde writes:

Thank you, very interesting podcast.
Related to this topic, I can suggest two very interesting books on economics of the contemporary art. Don Thomson 's "The $12 Million Stuffed Shark", which covers supply and demand for art, pricing, labour market of artists, the role of branding, auctions, dealers, collectors, galleries, critics, museums etc. I have been always puzzled by why some art works cost so much and who determined what is art and what is not. This book gave me the answers. D. Thomson has also a more recent book "The Supermodel and the Brillo Box".

big al writes:

i agree with jason - the first thing i thought of was De Beers. art museums serve as giant "art sinks" that suck material in and never let it out, which has to have an effect on art prices.

Emily M writes:

Wonderful episode. O'Hare's point about how art museum stores only sell art supplies in the children's section reminded me of my visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. The museum store had no blank diaries for sale. This was in 2004, so perhaps they've gotten their act together since, but I was very surprised that they clearly didn't think that visitors might be inspired to start diaries of their own.

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