Steven Kopit, a loyal MR commentator, asks:
Let’s have more on the economics of museums. That’s actually an interesting topic.
Only a very small portion of the collections of the Louvre other major museums is on display at any given time. I think it would make a great deal of sense to provide additional venues for shows–including in China. In the end, holdings of art (like income, per SS) only matter is someone actually consumes them, ie, gets to see them.
I say the deadweight loss here is not so large. Most art exhibitions are not self-financing from the side of the viewers, which suggests that the demand to see the pictures is not higher than the costs of mounting the exhibit. Arguably you can throw in philanthropic support as another part of “market demand,” but I consider that a separate valuation issue. Maybe our current artistic institutions are under-providing marketing opportunities for businesses and foundations, but that still won’t get you a major pent-up demand to view the pictures, again not relative to cost. The very popular pictures, such as the good works by the Impressionists and post-Impressionists, are shown quite frequently, including in traveling exhibitions.
Context matters a great deal in this setting. Currently most of the Louvre is not being viewed at any point in time, as the crowds tend to cluster in a few very well-known areas. Many people would want to go see anything they are told they ought to go see. What is underfunded is some kind of “demand for participation in a public event,” not the viewing of art per se. If only they could create more hullaballoo around the more obscure Flemish painters.
Almost all museums have large stretches of empty walls. I would put up many more pictures there, as indeed I do in my own home. That museums do not do this I find striking and indicative. Nor do I see viewers and visitors demanding this, if anything the unspoken feeling might be to wish for a bit less on the walls, so that one may have the feeling of having seen everything without exhaustion.
The costs of storing art are high. Perhaps the Louvre should sell some of its lower-tier works to private collectors. But the general public just doesn’t want so much more art to see, not if they have to pay for it and maybe even if they don’t.