Wednesday 26 May 2010

Let them down easy

Or, if you prefer a Human League earworm with your internet browsing ... don't you want me baby? don't you want me ooooo-oooooh?

A WSJ article about when and how museums say 'no' to donations has some interesting numbers:

13: the number of works Cleveland Museum of Art has returned to Italy because their provenance has been questionable. Solid histories of ownership, especially around antiquities and works that have come from Europe in the Second World War period, are an important consideration for potential donations.

1/3: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' estimated turn-down rate

9/10: Houston Museum of Fine Arts' estimated turn-down rate

3: number of years an institution must hold a 'commodity' (an item that is donated but not accessioned into the collection) to qualify as a tax-deductible donation from the IRS after its sale

The article also gives some examples of the need to be very clear when rejecting offers:

In the mid-1970s, a Florida resident contacted a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, offering to sell a purported Rembrandt. The curator, who knew the picture wasn't by that artist, gently declined the opportunity to buy "the painting by Rembrandt." The curator was unaware that the work's owner would use her words to proclaim that the painting must be authentic. For years, she found herself explaining to one Rembrandt expert or another what she had meant.

On the same day I saw this article, I saw a response by Art Fund director Stephen Deuchar to a Jonathan Jones column on museums' declining purchasing power. Deuchar cited a recent Art Fund survey of museums and galleries in which 75% of respondents cited a lack of funding as the main barrier to collecting, and only 2% saw acquiring new work as a top priority. Deuchar made an interesting point:

Take away acquisitions and you take away one of a curator's reasons for living. So as budgets are pinched, curatorial jobs are inevitably coming under threat. And once expert knowledge starts to ebb away, it won't only be that museums can't afford to buy great works of art; they simply won't know how to.

I'm curious about how curators learn to approach buying for a collection - which is, I think, a very distinct task from selecting works for an exhibition or putting together a book.

It seems to me that building a collection requires more than just cash. It requires curators with vision, skill and deep knowledge, and an organisation that gives these curators time to mull decisions slowly, and licence to make decisions swiftly.

Collection building is a deeply strategic activity that requires the balancing of current and potential future needs, opportunism and careful planning. It requires a deep understanding of the existing collection and how and why it has been built, and a vision of how it will continue to grow. It needs a mixture of pragmatism (will it physically last? do we have a wall big enough to hang it? how much of this year's budget will this leave? would anyone chip in to help us pay for it?) and connoisseurship (what's its wall appeal? how will it fit in? is it the best of its kind? does it need to be - or is it making another point?). And it needs people who know how to bid fearlessly, negotiate tenaciously, network assiduously, and charm in a meaningful way. It seems to me that these are skills that need to be learned, and I wonder if New Zealand provides enough opportunities for this learning to happen?

1 comment:

Robyn said...

Funnily enough, similar issues exist on a much much smaller scale.

My dad is involved with a tiny museum in a small NZ town. This is what they deal with - a local resident dies, their family picks the best parts of the estate and kindly donates the rest to the museum. So over the years the museum has acquired a large amount of stuff with no connection to the region - the sort of stuff that would probably be better off finding a new home via Trade Me or the local recycling depot.

But then some of that stuff is worth donating to the museum. So how does one decided what's valuable and what's trash?