Wicked Waste: How Museum Culture Cheats Citizens of Access to Art

Mike O’Hare explains how accounting policies (no, really) make art museums much less useful than they ought to be. The basic problem is that they don’t account for their art as an asset, and therefore don’t feel accountable – and aren’t held accountable – for whether they’re creating a reasonable return on that asset in terms of the experience that actual people have with art. This fits in with the taboo on “de-accessioning” (i.e., selling) art, which keeps paintings that would be important exhibits in second-rung museums isolated instead in the basements of first-rung museums. (There is one Monet on display in the state of Florida, zero in the rest of the south, zero in the Midwest outside Chicago, zero in the Mountain West, zero in the Pacific Northwest. There are twenty Monets not on display in the inventories of American museums.)

By selling 1% (by value; of course, more by item count) of its inventory, any big museum could endow free admission forever. Another 1% would finance 30% more wall space, allowing more art to be displayed. And the stuff sold wouldn’t drop down into a black hole; someone would be seeing it.

That such an obviously good idea is even controversial testifies to how ossified museum practice has become.

O’Hare’s essay is a classic piece of policy analysis; I may assign it for my first-year course. He starts with the fundamental question: What is the public interest to be served here? And then he thinks carefully through the questions of how to serve it better and what organizational and conceptual barriers are in the way.

Let’s face it: the fact that there’s only one Michael O’Hare is a Heavenly judgment on the wickedness of contemporary society. If we’d just been good, there would be at least six of him. But what’s done is done; let’s enjoy the O’Hare we have, and in the meantime let’s get something done about the scandalous waste of resources created by the way our great museums are managed.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.