June 24, 2006

Why museums should sell to acquire

Posted at 9:06 pm in British Museum

Simon Jenkins, a former editor of The Times who has voiced opinions in the past that the Elgin Marbles should be returned looks at how museums in Britain could easily solve all their financial problems. Anti-deaccessioning laws such as the British Museum Act are frequently used as a justification for why it is difficult for the marbles to be returned – the reality is that if there was a will by the museums & the government to take such an action then the changes needed to the law would present only a very minor obstruction to the process.

The Guardian

This miser’s hoard is the last vestige of the imperial world-view
The museums plead poverty while sitting on piles of hidden art. Like US galleries, they ought to sell to acquire
Simon Jenkins
Friday June 23, 2006
The Guardian

There are experts and there are art experts. Experts I admire. Art experts are mostly fruitcakes. I was therefore on raisin watch this week when Gustav Klimt’s gold-encrusted Adele Bloch-Bauer I was declared (in the Guardian, no less) to be “worth more” than the £73m world record it had just fetched. Worth more what? Surely not money. Was it the value of the gold if you scraped it off?

The New York cosmetics tycoon Ronald Lauder agreed. He compared the Adele to the Mona Lisa, which is pushing things, but then he had just bought it. The Herald Tribune declared it a masterpiece. Pundits at the Times declared that Klimt’s work was “about life as set in the context of eternity”, not to mention “an icon of complicated vulnerabilities … sumptuous patterns and the lustre of undulating shapes”. The paragon will now hang in Lauder’s exquisite Neue Galerie New York, on Fifth Avenue opposite the Metropolitan.

The painting’s 90-year-old owner – Adele’s niece, Maria Altmann – can now recoup legal and other costs sustained in 60 years of trying to recover the painting, including a suit before the American supreme court. She has prised the picture out of Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery, where the Nazis had put it after looting it from her family and where the Austrian government said it should stay. Add Christie’s fee, costs of storage and insurance (the picture is currently in Los Angeles) and fruitless research into whether Klimt and Adele were lovers, and I am sure it will seem cheap at the price. It is only odd that art historians had never before noticed that the painting was worth £73m, given their present certainty on the subject.

The truth is that applying words such as “worth” and “value” to art is an abuse of language. They are terms not of art but of a science, that of economics. They describe price in a market in which supply is fixed but demand exorbitant. Nobody does Klimts any more. The picture was expensive because, unless Christie’s was pulling a fast one in a “negotiated” secret deal, there must have been another buyer prepared to pay nearly as much. Getting journalists to hype a work of art to legitimise its market price is playing with words. It is like saying the Olympics are “worth” £2bn when this is simply a price fixed in the market for political kudos.

Altmann is a beneficiary of the latest bout of art buying, which has set multimillion-pound records for Renoir, Degas, Schiele, Picasso, Modigliani, Bacon, Riley and Hockney. Sotheby’s and Christie’s have both broken records for individual sessions, and overall transactions are reported to have topped £260m in a week. Of one thing we can be sure. At these prices no British gallery will have been bidding. The Getty, the Met, Los Angeles and Fort Worth’s Kimble will have pitted their millions against Russians, Japanese and Chinese, not to mention tycoons bored with computing and retail empires.

Britain’s museums may be rich in assets, but they claim to be poor in cash. And their assets are leaking. In February drawings by William Blake went abroad. The Burgher of Delft by Steen and works by Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Reynolds and Titian were lost two years ago. Of 25 objects on which export stops were placed in 2004, only nine were saved, or just 12% in terms of value. Other celebrated works, such as Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks and Lord Halifax’s Titian, were on loan to existing galleries but are being flushed out as owners seek to capitalise on soaring values, usually to maintain country houses.

Any patriotic art lover is saddened when such pictures leave for foreign shores, though I cannot see how a Steen in a Welsh private house was more “accessible” than in a public gallery abroad. Nor can I see what nationalist prerogative requires a great work of world art always to remain in one place. If such works never move, how will newly rich countries ever deepen their cultures?

The museum lobby pleads that it is “cash-strapped” and cannot expand or refresh its collections. Last month the Art Fund (after the lottery, the biggest donor for acquisitions) remarked that its meagre £4m a year in available grants meant that collecting by British institutions would soon be “a thing of the past”. The Louvre has more to spend than all Britain’s 300 museums and galleries put together.

Yet someone has to earn money for museums to spend it. The old curator’s trick of abusing as philistine anyone who questions his or her right to unlimited cash no longer washes. I can understand subsidising specific projects – better buildings and such crown jewels as Canova’s Three Graces and two London Canalettos. But I cannot see why the Treasury should lubricate the ambitions of gallery directors to bid against the Lauders and Gettys when they refuse point-blank to mobilise the two sources of income available to their rivals abroad, entry charges and asset sales.

No institution is poor when it can, like the National Gallery or the British Museum, wave away £5m a year in entry charges – money accepted and used for acquisitions by the Prado, the Louvre, the Rijksmuseum and the Met without damaging their ethical egos. There is no evidence that “free” admission, a politically correct obsession, has altered the social composition of visitors.

But this extravagance is nothing compared with the museums pleading poverty in the matter of acquisitions while sitting on gigantic (and escalating) assets stored away unseen in basements and attics. Britain has more art buried under Bloomsbury, South Kensington, the Tate and a dozen provincial museums than nine-tenths of the world can ever hope to possess or see. Refusing to release on to the market any of this miser’s hoard is the last manifestation of the imperial world-view.

The great American collections grew big by selling to acquire. Of course there were mistakes, but shrewd turnover is enabling museums such as the Kimble and Los Angeles to rival the finest in Europe. Britain’s museum herbivores chant the reasons why they should, on no account, be allowed to sell. It would be immoral, uncontrollable, rightwing, vulnerable to fashion, deterring to donors, against various statutes and always regretted later. It is amazing that some of them dare cross the road. But they can hardly complain of being unable to buy when they refuse to sell and when their hoarding inflates the market against them.

I know these strictures apply only to well-favoured institutions and that some provincial galleries are on desperately short rations. But the soaring value of art offers a real parting of the ways for museums, either a road to salvation and growth or a progressive depletion. Few institutions could not improve their collections with judicious (and properly monitored) disposals. Even last year’s Museums Association report mooted a “use it or lose it” policy, though it dared not breathe the dreaded word “money”.

Great collections were founded on someone’s risk and graft, and so must be their renewal. If their present guardians wish to opt out of the graft and whinge like misers over their private hoards, so be it. But let them not plead poverty. Most are stinking rich.

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