The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
Did you hear about the museum in Sweden that didn’t realize three of its paintings were missing…until they were found by police raiding an apartment? Thank goodness for those “Malmo Art Museum” labels on the back of the canvasses. The story should remind us not to get too self-righteous about museums selling art to private collections, where (heaven forbid) they might not be available for public viewing.
Apparently the Malmo Art Museum in Sweden was unaware that a $1.5 million work by Edvard Munch and two other paintings in its collection had been stolen, until police discovered them in a raid. It’s a cringe-laugh-cry tale for anyone who cares about art and museums, with the laughter permissible only because it has a happy ending.
(By the way, the stolen Munch was "Two Friends," which I couldn't find an image of, not "The Scream." But the latter seems apt.)
For me, the story also shines light on the current debates about deaccessioning. (For those of you outside the visual art orbit, that’s the process by which museums sell, trade, or otherwise get rid of objects in their collections.) The furor over museums and universities like the National Academy Museum, Brandeis's Rose Art Museum, and Fisk University (pictured) trying to sell artworks from their collections to put themselves on a firmer financial footing — and the hawkish response from professional and accrediting bodies like AAM and AAMD — is understandable. But it hinges on several arguments about the harm that such sales would do to those institutions’ credibility and to the “public trust.” And the story of Malmo’s Munch suggests that one of those arguments doesn’t (pardon the pun) hold up. …
I’m talking about the argument that museum ownership keeps art in the public domain: that museum art is everyone’s to see and enjoy. This argument is made loudest when a museum plans to sell works at auction, where private collectors make up the majority of bidders. The objection is that transferring an artwork out of a museum means that the public will no longer get to see and benefit from it. It’ll disappear into the lair of some hedge-fund manager or media figure, never to emerge.
But how public, really, is most art in museum collections, if the vast majority of it isn’t on display at any given time and much of it never will be? Interestingly, even the average art museum visitor is aware that what’s in the galleries is the tip of the iceberg. Get people from outside the museum profession talking about art museums (as we do frequently in interviews and focus groups) and it’s not long before you’ll hear about the treasure-filled “basement” or “backstage” where all those other artworks are stored. Their eyes light up when they talk about it; they would love to wander through that Citizen Kane-like trove.
Yet they know they aren’t likely to get an invitation, unless they happen to be, say, a hedge fund manager or a media figure who can make a big donation. The majority of the collection is closed off to them, a distant idea of abundance and creativity.
Which is as it must be, from any practical perspective. It’s just that “public” and “private” are slipperier concepts than we sometimes admit. Access and utility aren’t always tied to museum ownership of art, and private ownership can, in the right hands, be a public service. (Think how many private collections are loaned or given to museums, or become the basis for new museums.)
The mismanagement of the Malmo collection is obviously an extreme case, but it should remind us to have a sense of (wry) humor and rein us in a little when we start to crow about the manifest destiny of museums to own artworks. The system isn’t perfect even when it’s working altogether professionally. Some museumgoers already suspected that major art museums literally have more art than they know what to do with, and this story won’t help. Art museums need to show their publics why those vast collections are important and how they function — in other words, to bring visitors into the vaults, at least metaphorically, and make them stakeholders in the work of the museum.
Meanwhile, it wouldn’t hurt to have a real conversation — free of high-flown rhetoric and pat assumptions — about whether and in what senses art museums are public, private, or something else. Legally speaking, most of them are private nonprofit corporations, controlled by trustees who can do more or less what they like. But as nonprofits, they’re meant to serve charitable and/or educational purposes, and they’re answerable to state authorities in a way that private corporations aren’t. So what do the labels mean? Whose sense of ownership counts, and what should it look like? Where, exactly, does art want to be?
Your thoughts? The conversation can start right here.
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