An impossibly crude theory of museums

The ever-insightful David Nishimura asks why museums are so strongly discouraged from selling works in their inventories. I have seen (informal) estimates that U.S. museums display no more than five percent of their collections over a few years. Nishimura asks:

In fact, museums often end up with stuff that they cannot exhibit or that is of little or no relevance to what they are all about (it’s not only relatives who end up receiving gifts that are better intentioned than chosen!). Storage space is another issue, as is the cost of insurance.

Museums also evolve over time. Nearly all older American museums, for example, started out with collections of European paintings of decidedly mediocre quality. Skip forward a few generations, and those museums’ galleries are at an entirely different level — the legacy of wealthy patrons, vastly improved connoisseurship, and the dispersal of so many old European collections. And so what was once exemplary is now the stuff sold in bulk by third-rank auction houses. Is it so bad that such works be sold off, especially if the proceeds can be used to acquire better items not well represented in the collection?

In practice, museum directors who “deaccession” artworks come under heavy criticism. Why? Here is where a very crude theory, too crude to possibly be true, comes in.

Stop thinking of visitors as the museum’s customers. Instead the customers are the donors. Donating a picture is like spending money. The donor gives a Picasso to MOMA, in return purchasing the feeling of “having given a Picasso to MOMA.” This yields tax, networking, and other privileges in this life, as well as a long-term legacy. Museums, in turn, take some care to attract viewers, so that their real customers — the donors — have greater feelings of satisfaction about the whole enterprise.

In this “model,” selling off artworks makes customers (donors) nervous. “How do I know they won’t sell off my [sic] Picasso once I’ve died?” It is only a slight reassurance to respond: “We only sell off the second-rate pictures in our inventory.” So museums sit on their huge and growing stashes of art. In this manner they signal their trustworthiness to future donors.

Under some assumptions this outcome is roughly efficient. Donating a picture to a vault is how that donor wishes to “spend” her resources. The donor may self-deceive into thinking that the donated work is a masterpiece. By the time the truth is revealed, she has passed away. Subsequently selling the work to a museum in Topeka would damage future donors more than it would benefit Kansas viewers. The museum community, of course, does not like to admit that its donors are the primary customers (how would viewers and government funders feel?), so it must present other reasons why deaccessioning is bad. At the same time the museum faces a “time consistency” problem, and would like nothing more than to sell off its dross.

The policy bottom line: Government funding eases museum needs for funds, and makes it easier for museums to keep pictures in vaults. The funding subsidizes the legacies of dead donors, eases time consistency problems for future donors, and limits the real supply of art, to the detriment of viewers. That’s just in this fantasy model of course, not in the real world.