Admission Fees at Universal Museums

I’ve been interested to note in the last few weeks a couple of ideas which may appear to be more closely related than we might think.

First is the general trend of museums increasing their cost of admission. Tyler Green discussed this back in march, when the Philadalphia Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago both indicated admission hikes were on the way. In his Op-Ed in April for the Philadelphia Inquirer Green argued that the special exhibition of “Cezanne and Beyond” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art” results in two museums. Specifically, “[t]he area of the museum that features “Cezanne and Beyond” is available only to those affluent enough to afford the exhibition charge, while the rest of the museum is more accessible to the lower and middle classes.” This is a problem because the museum “is a nonprofit housed in city-owned buildings. It gets about $2.4 million a year from the city and has received millions more in capital funding, with more on the way. So its willingness to effectively redline certain residents out of its programming is improper.”

I think that is an interesting argument, and an important point to make as funding for a lot of projects is tight right now, but particulary art and cultural projects. Without government funding, or other revenue sources, these institutions may be pricing out younger and lower-income visitors. Now, they may have access to culture at some other location, a concert, via the web, or in another way, but long-term this would seem to harm the museums standing among these groups.

Secondly, I wonder how this trend of admissions increases might impact arguments for universal museums. David Gill has been poking holes in many of the ideas in the collection of essays edited by James Cuno “Whose Culture?”. Cuno of course is one of the more outspoken proponents of the acquisition of objects even where they may have been looted or illegally removed from their context. And scholars on both sides go around and around on that argument, and tend to devolve into their entrenched positions with no real progress being made for cultural policy generally. But one argument I don’t see made is whether these Universal Museums may not even be Universal for the inhabitants of the city they are in. Are these rate hikes espousing Cosmopolitan values? If so, don’t we need to apply them equally, whether that applies to the acquisition of a piece lacking history, or to how many and what types of people can come and view these objects? I think it does.

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More on Who Owns What

Amid the continued discussion of who should own antiquities (or even if ownership is the wrong paradigm) James Cuno, President of the Art Institute in Chicago continues to be a strong voice which cuts against the current of popular opinion.

On Sunday, Andrew Herrmann, a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun Times had an interesting article on Cuno’s views which are elaborated in his new book, Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage. The article essentially summarizes Cuno’s views for a broader audience, with some excerpts from the book, which will be out in the US on May 28. I hope to get my hands on a copy soon, but until then here is a bit of Sunday’s article:

Today, Cuno worries that “encyclopedic” museums such as the Art Institute and the Louvre, which contain antiquities from around the planet, are endangered by nations that, simply put, want their stuff back — and don’t want any more stuff to leave their borders….

The question isn’t just the musings of a museum man. Egypt, Greece, Peru, Turkey and China are among countries pushing for the return of objects removed from their lands years ago. Italy has forced the return of dozens of pieces from American museums. Laws in host countries can now seriously restrict export of artifacts.

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Forgery Revealed in Chicago

Apologies for the light posting this last week. I’ve been away in Dubai with the wife. I’ll talk about why, and talk a bit about my impressions tomorrow. For now I want to talk about the big story which was revealed while I was away: the forgery by Shaun Greenhalgh, whom I talked about earlier here.

Tyler Cowen first revealed the Paul Gauguin sculpture was a fake after Jim Cuno told the staff of the Art Institute of Chicago was a fake. Donn Zaretsky helpfully collects links to the prominent coverage.

The Art Newspaper has perhaps the best coverage, as it seems it tracked the sculpture to Chicago. Last month the three members of the Greenhalgh family were sentenced over the Amarna Princess. They discovered a Gauguin sculpture had been created by Greenhalgh after talking with Scotland Yard. They then tracked the work to Chicago.

The forged work was consigned to Sotheby’s by “Mrs. Roscoe”, the maiden name of Olive Greenhalgh. It was sold for £20,700. The London dealers Howie and Pillar purchased it, and it was later sold to the Art Institute for $125,000. The purchase was hailed as a success. Martin Bailey asks why nobody questioned the authenticity? The real sculpture has been missing, the forgery was based on a faun sketch dating to 1887. It seems Sotheby’s is expected to reimburse the Art Institute of Chicago. I think this reveals at least two troubling matters.

First, how many more forgeries are out there? How easy is it to trick authenticators? The best in the world looked at this sculpture and were duped. Perhaps they wanted to believe a little too much. Also, when visitors (and even experts) looked at the sculpture did it convey emotion? How much did that have to do with the beauty of the object itself; and how much was related to the idea that this small work was created by a “great” artist, Paul Gauguin?

Second, I think it reveals the continuing need for more provenance information in art and antiquities sales. The answer may be for an international registry which tracks buyers and sellers when objects are bought and sold. Until such a system emerges, the market continues to leave itself open to this kind of embarrassment.

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