Don’t Believe the Met is in Financial Crisis

Robin Pogrebin raises the alarm: the Met is cutting staff and putting off building plans! Look for cutbacks on the art side, “staff reductions [and] reduced programming”, and more effort on the not-much-to-do-with-art side, “a concerted effort to increase revenue in its restaurants and retail operations”. The deficit forcing these painful compromises is really scary, ten million dollars a year and going up.  Why, you only have to look at their financial reports to see flashing lights everywhere; this enormous institution has an asset base of only about $4b and more than half of that is restricted.

Wait a minute; $4b? The Met has a collection worth at least $60 billion, thousands and thousands of objects almost none of which (by object count or square feet of picture) is ever shown or ever will be.  It’s not in their balance sheet, perhaps because if it were, Pogrebin might ask awkward questions about it.  Selling just two percent (off the bottom by quality or importance, of course, and much more than two percent of it by object count), for example, could endow free admission forever. Selling .3 percent would cover that pesky deficit, also forever.  And the smaller museums and collectors who would buy works freed from the catacombs would show it.

Nothing in the Met’s mission statement suggests its purpose is to accumulate as much art as possible where no-one sees it. But the Met and all the other big art museums have insulated themselves from this sort of awkward question by writing a code of ethics that forbids any museum from selling anything except to buy more art.

Rich art lovers, don’t be suckered by hard-luck stories like the one Pogrebin uncritically retails.  Do not give a penny or so much as a tiny watercolor to any museum that doesn’t recuse itself from this provision of the AAMD rules.  When a couple of big ones like the Met show some leadership, things will change, and our engagement with art will improve in many ways.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.