More on the Admissions Prices at the Art Institute Chicago

Tyler Green noted last week that the Art Institute Chicago has decided to scale back some of its admissions prices for certain groups of Chicago residents.  In doing so he draws some connections between this policy, and the arguments James Cuno has made about the proper place for art and antiquities.  I made a similar kind of point last week, and Green argues the rate reductions don’t really sit well with this Cosmopolitan view of heritage:

All of these rollbacks are for Chicago (city) residents only. In other words: For the AIC, providing access to the cultural treasures in its store isn’t a priority… but a quick-sorta-fix for the sake of narrow political expediency was.

That’s kind of ironic given that AIC director Jim Cuno is well-known for arguing that it really doesn’t matter where antiquities are because they’re part of our shared, global cultural heritage. Well, there are tens of thousands of other objects at the AIC that are part of our shared cultural heritage too. It’s too bad that the AIC refuses to make broader public access to those treasures a priority . . .

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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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The Challenge of UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Simon Usborne has an extended piece for the Telegraph examining the difficult task UNESCO has in selecting and preserving heritage sites. A number of pressures make this a difficult task, from too many visitors to looting to environmental or other factors. Pictured here is Monte Albán near Oaxaca, Mexico. The site is reportedly under threat as its carvings are exposed to the elements, it has been looted, and a nearby fire damaged it in 2006. The site is a World Heritage Site, which brings visitors and attention, but not perhaps enough resources for protection, preservation or crowd management.

One difficulty is the huge number of sites the agency is responsible for:

Unesco insists all its sites adhere to strict rules about management and planning, but could it be that the task facing the organisation – effectively to protect the planet – has become so daunting as to be impossible? If it has, the man in charge must have one of the toughest jobs in the world. Speaking from his Paris office, Francesco Bandarin admits it’s a tall order. “Sometimes you feel it’s impossible to control everything, especially when you look at our founding principles,” he says. “Our list is growing and the number of requests is growing, and it seems like the more work you do the more you get. It’s a very big job – too big.”
Bandarin suggests a solution would be to maintain a central committee, but to break some of the bureaucracy by handing partial autonomy to an “effective network of heritage institutes”. Unesco has launched a review of its practises and Bandarin expects big changes by 2012, when World Heritage turns 40. “It’s the only way we can cope with the crazy volume of work,” he says.
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Discussion on the Need for Social and Cultural Theory

An exciting discussion is taking place this week at the University of Chicago Law School BlogBeyond Economic Analysis of Intellectual Property: The Need For Social and Cultural Theory?” many of the same issues that occur in the intersection between commerce and heritage in the antiquities or art trade also exist when other intellectual property is bought and sold or subjected to legal regulation. The conversation began with a post by Hadhavi Sunder, who makes some excellent arguments that Intellectual Property needs to move beyond its traditional economic justifications.

Over the course of the last century intellectual property has grown exponentially, but its march into all corners of our lives and to the most destitute corners of the world has paradoxically exposed the fragility of its economic foundations while amplifying its social and cultural effects. Today intellectual property laws bear considerably upon central features of human flourishing, from the developing world’s access to food, textbooks, and essential medicines, to the ability of citizens everywhere to democratically participate in political and cultural discourse.

Despite these real world changes, intellectual property scholars insist on explaining this field through the narrow lens of a particular economic vision.Intellectual property is understood solely as a tool to solve an economic “public goods” problem: nonrivalrous and nonexcludable goods such as music and scientific knowledge will be too easy to copy and share—thus wiping out any incentive to create them in the first place—without a monopoly right in the creations for a limited period of time.

These are some heady concepts, and I think these are some excellent ideas. I’ve tried to construct the argument elsewhere that in the context of antiquities we need to value the broader cultural value of antiquities in constructing and formulating heritage policy.

Other posts in the series this week include:

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Tyler Green on the $50 Million "Arts Stimulus"

He’s not a fan, and I agree.  It is yet another sign of the lowly position given to federal arts policy.  He offers what I think is a very good suggestion:

. . . The arts community should take a lesson from how policy is made in Washington, from the policy-driven infrastructure of the city. The first step: The arts should join Washington’s think-tank culture. Arts philanthropists should fund arts policy fellows at major think tanks, places such as the Center for American Progress and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Smart arts thinkers would have the opportunity to be involved in policy debates, to develop new ideas about how government should be involved in the arts (and not just in one little agency, but across the federal apparatus).

Joining the Washington policy-making set wouldn’t result in immediate, FY 2010 policy changes, but over time it would lead to new ideas and new ways that the federal government could engage with and support the nation’s cultural vitality. Just as importantly: It would burrow cultural thinkers and backers into the culture of Washington influence, building a baseline of support for the arts amongst policy-makers who work in a range of fields. Perhaps, finally, a great nation would have the federal involvement in the arts that it deserves.


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"It is time for the American arts community to confront its stunning political ineptitude"

So says the Chicago Tribune’s theater critic Chris Jones in an opinion piece yesterday on the shocking prohibition on funding for the arts in the stimulus:

It is time for the American arts community to confront its stunning political ineptitude. It has arrived at a place where there seems to be no one to make its case; no one, at least, free from the taint of self-interest.

After all, the argument that the labor-intensive arts are not job-creation engines is patently absurd; they just fuel different kinds of struggling workers, workers unaccustomed to bonuses. Their role in generating billions of dollars in ancillary economic activity for stores, restaurants and the travel business has been proven in bucketloads of surveys and analyses.

The contrast in priority with the last comparable American stimulus package is simply breathtaking. Funded by the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, FDR’s Works Progress Administration made the arts a priority. Federal Project Number One was, believe it or not, the largest of the WPA’s endeavors.

Its mission was to give more Americans the chance to experience what Roosevelt called “a fuller life.” Its legacy—from invigorating murals to landscape paintings to the careers of Arthur Miller or Orson Welles—is everywhere you look.

In less than 75 years, the arts have gone from the single largest priority in a government stimulus package to a toxic joke. It is a stunning turnaround.

I think this is a very timely, and very pointed criticism. Why must we view art in economic terms? Why does nearly every article or mention of a work of art also discuss it’s potential market price? Art has some powerful non-economic benefits which are not always easily measured, and the arts community needs to do a much better job making its case.

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All or Nothing

Rose Museum

Lots of very thoughtful reactions to the shocking decision by Brandeis University to shut down the Rose Museum of Art.  The Art Law Blog and C-Monster have all the links.  The best coverage comes via the Boston Globe and NPR

The decision is upsetting on two levels.  For one, the institution is deciding art does not have a place in its core education mission.  Second and perhaps more troubling, how many more Universities and museums will be confronted with similar difficulties in the coming years.  There was the rumored Iowa proposed deaccessioning, the LA MOCA debacle, the National Academy deaccessioning, and even the dissolution of 18 research positions at the University of Pennsylvania all signal a shift away from the arts and humanities. Endowments are way down for a host of institutions.  Given the economic situations, might these increase, rather than decrease? 

One of the potential avenues to block the closure, or at least guide it towards a more-acceptable resolution will be the Massachusetts Attorney General.  One wonders if in this climate, we may have to think about adopting the approach much of the rest of the World uses for cultural management, namely Government support and funding.  Much of the cultural management structures in the UK, such as the Waverley Export Process, were initiated in response to economic hard times, and the loss of art and world-heritage leaving the UK and heading elsewhere, namely to the US.  It might be worth remembering, that the Universal Museums in america were formed at the expense of other nations.  If a similar trend continues here in the US, might something like a Culture Cabinet Post become not just a nice idea, but a necessity?   

William R. Ferris, senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, made the case in an op-ed piece last month in the New York Times. It begins:

IN 1935, as part of the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Farm Security Administration, which reached out to rural families as they struggled during the Depression. Roy Stryker, who oversaw the agency’s photo documentary program, captured the strength of American culture in the depths of the country’s despair. The photographs of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks showed us both the pain of America and the resilience of its people.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson drew on his Texas roots when he created the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, organizations that share America’s arts and humanities with the American people.

As we are entering another era of increased government programs, or so it would seem.  Might not a strong Cabinet-level advocate make very good sense?  I think it would.  

Turning back to the Rose decision, Donn Zaretsky beats me to the punch on one of my initial reactions to the decision.  Namely, the deaccessioning hurdles may perversely make it more feasible for an institution in financial or other difficulty to completely shut down, rather than sell parts of a collection. 

I wonder if the taboo against selling individual pieces might not have contributed, in some small way, to Brandeis’s decision to close the museum? If they could have sold five or ten of the most valuable works without controversy, might the trustees have reached a different conclusion?

Richard Lacayo offers more substance on this with an interview with Michael Rush, the Rose’s director:

“You can’t solve a shortfall problem by selling, say, our Lichtenstein and still maintain yourself legally and ethically as a museum. I think that’s what’s behind the decision to do something drastic and close the museum.

“Over the last couple of years we went through one very meticulous deaccessioning. It involved some art that was not part of our mission and had never been shown in the museum but that happened to be valuable. We got in before the market crashed. We went through several meticulous processes there, with donors, with boards, with lawyers, with the AAMD.

“So the university, from the top down, was intimately familiar with deaccessioning processes. And I think that, rather than go through the scrutiny that would accompany the sale of a few paintings, they decided instead on what I’m sure they felt would be a one-shot situation of horrible feedback over closing the museum. As draconian as it may seem, I think that closing the museum was what they were advised, legally, to do. You can’t do this piecemeal.”

All or nothing, that seems to be the ethical landscape.   

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