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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Bad Connections

The New York Times‘ Edward Rothstein has an odd article today entitled “Antiquities, the World Is Your Homeland“, in which he essentially repackages James Cuno’s arguments, and makes some questionable assertions. Rothstein is the critic-at-large for the NYT, and he may be very good at what he does, but his foray into cultural policy today is not very thoughtful, and presents an unhelpfully biased view. Perhaps some of his other writing is very good, I’ll confess I don’t read classical music or his other reviews very often, but this appears to be an article he was in a hurry to get in before a deadline.

First, he makes a major blunder by confusing cultural property with cultural heritage. He mistakenly argues that nations of origin view antiquities as cultural property. Not so, in fact most would use the term heritage, or an approximation of that in their native language. I think cultural property is a narrower subset of a larger body of what can be called cultural heritage.

Second, he roundly criticizes the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA):

In the United States, for example, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act required every museum getting public funds to survey its collections; identify Indian remains and funerary, sacred and other objects; and consult with Indian tribes and ”repatriate” the artifacts if requested. Such objects may have been legitimately purchased a century ago from the tribes or have no issue clouding their provenance, but claims of ordinary property give way before claims of cultural property. The grievous sins of the past are now being repaid with a vengeance. And the risks of repatriation and the requirements of tribal consultation have led to promotional, uninformative and self-indulgent themes in exhibitions about American Indians.

I find it unlikely human remains were legitimately purchased, but perhaps they were. He ignores perhaps the most important aspect of NAGPRA. It facilitated a helpful dialogue between museums and tribes to create workable relationships which can help undo some of the mistreatment of the past, an important benefit Rothstein seems unaware of.

Near the end, Rothstein argues:

Seen in this light the very notion of cultural property is narrow and flawed. It is hardly, as Unesco asserted, “one of the basic elements of civilization.” It illuminates neither the particular culture involved nor its relationship to a current political entity. It may be useful as a metaphor, but it has been more commonly used to consolidate cultural bureaucracies and state control.

But if cultural property really did exist, the Enlightenment museum would be an example of it: an institution that evolved, almost uniquely, out of Western civilization. And the cultural property movement could be seen as a persistent attempt to undermine it. And take illicit possession.

These Western “encyclopedic” museums are formed on the noblest of intentions. However they have been associated and party to illegal activity. Moreover, the rights these institutions often assert to these objects is based on the legal notion of property. If heritage become the exclusive paradigm, that would remove the argument justifying the current location of many of these objects in New York, Paris, London, Berlin, etc.

I suppose we have to forgive the author for an ignorance of the law, but “illicit” typically refers to illegal excavation or illegal export. Not the kind of repatriation he is describing. The key now is how these institutions can adapt and begin to work with nations of origin, not continue an acrimonious debate

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More Advance Press for Cuno (UPDATE)

The New York Times‘ Jori Finkel devoted a column to James Cuno in Sunday’s Art Section, complete with an excerpt of Who Owns Antiquity, forthcoming from Princeton University Press. Cuno has been in print a great deal lately, which owes perhaps to some excellent PR work on his behalf securing these pieces with reporters, and perhaps also the fact that he is going against the main current of cultural heritage thinking at the moment. Most of the article details the new expansion of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the decision to loan 92 works to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.

Near the end, there is a brief overview of the forthcoming book:

This sense of a museum’s civic duties also shapes his new book. The title, “Who Owns Antiquity?” is disingenuous, as the book’s answer is clearly nobody, or everybody. In a polarized debate that has pitted archaeologists against collectors, he takes the increasingly unpopular pro-trade side but seeks to give it an ethical framework.

Mr. Cuno contends that “the accident of geography” should not give nations exclusive claims on archaeological material that happens to be found within their borders. He asserts that a country’s cultural patrimony policies reflect its political or diplomatic agenda more than a commitment to preserving culture. And he argues for the revival of partage, a practice in which museums or universities aid the excavation of an archaeological site in another country in exchange for some of the artifacts.

“People will assume my argument in favor of partage is a thinly disguised argument for imperialism,” he said. “But partage helped to create not just the university museums and encyclopedic museums in this country, but also museums locally on site — like the national museums of Afghanistan and Iraq.”

One thing I notice with these and similar articles is how easy it is to get sidetracked from the important issues. Cuno certainly represents a viewpoint which is at odds from what a number of archaeologists believe, but that does not necessarily mean they cannot cooperate to create a better legal and regulatory framework, and ensure museums do not acquire illicit objects.


Lee Rosenbaum has gotten her hands on a copy, and she’s not impressed. She has sharp criticism for Cuno, calling it an “intemperate screed” and arguing

By taking an extremist stance that belittles the deeply felt and legitimate concerns of archaeologists and source countries to preserve archaeological sites and national heritage, he undermines efforts by reasonable people on both sides of the cultural-property divide to arrive at mutually beneficial compromises.

I haven’t read the book myself, so I don’t know about the merit of these criticism, but she’s certainly not a fan. I don’t always agree with Cuno, but he’s an important voice and his pieces are always well-written, even if he does stray towards hyperbole from time to time.

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Comic Books, Myth and Cultural Policy

I’ve been thinking about what may seem a curious intersection in recent days. Namely the creation of modern myth and the connection between comic books and antiquities. I’ll first argue that comic books are nothing more than today’s modern myths, and then show how this relates to the summer Met exhibition, as well as dispute the claim that we are “losing” our connection to ancient mythology.

If you’re paying attention, comic books have a lot to teach us. Sure, they’re fun, and they for kids in many cases, but they also reveal deeper truths. As David Edelstein pointed out in his review of Iron Man, every age gets the super hero which will assuage its fears. Superman was a midwest farmboy, which was a product of major migration from “heartland to city”; similarly, Batman gained popularity in the 70’s with the “surge in urban crime”.

In Iron Man, Edelstein worries we might be glossing over the unpleasantness of our Military-Industrial complex, and its actions in Afghanistan. Iron man first appeared, in 1968, when the US was in the midst of the Vietnam War. He says “But at a time when America is viewed around the world as arrogant, will the picture be seen as another in that long line of Hollywood superhero movies aimed at making Americans feel better about themselves?” That’s a pointed question, as America is in fact the weapons maker to the world. But we don’t get to that deeper question if we can’t at least see the value in these myths, which are slick, and certainly very accessible.

There are other examples of course. Godzilla is a product of Japanese unease in the 1950’s following the dropping of the atomic bomb. Spider Man is the first superhero whose skin we can’t see in his costume, because in the 1960s Stan Lee wanted to create a superhero for all races. It’s hard not to see the struggle of World War II in Tolkien’s work. Now, perhaps I’m just an aging fanboy whose read too much Joseph Campbell, but is the story of the Odyssey really that different from a comic book? The point, I think, is not to choose ancient myths over modern pop culture, but to see how the two inform each other. David Simon has openly acknowledged that the Wire is nothing more than Greek tragedy, save instead of gods and goddesses he substitutes in their place modern institutions like police departments, the media, and the school system. If you’re paying attention, I think this nexus between Simon’s depiction of the Baltimore drug trade with ancient tragedy can inform both our understanding of urban cities, and realize that many similar struggles existed thousands of years ago.

Through September, the Met will be showing Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy.

C-MONSTER has photos, and Lee Rosenbaum is not a fan. Though she admits some of her complaints may be sour grapes, she expresses frustration at the fact that Philippe de Montebello, the “dean of American art museum directors” has tarnished his reputation by writing a Forward for the Met’s catalogue. Now, I’m out of my league if I attempt to unpack Rosenbaum’s argument from a scholarly curatorial perspective. However, she seems to strongly insinuate that comic books are for the uneducated, and beneath the lofty de Montebello. I couldn’t disagree more. I haven’t seen the the exhibition, and can’t speak to it’s merit, but the idea on its face strikes me as a good one. Why can’t we take comic books and superheroes seriously? The pop artists played with comic book forms and style to great effect didn’t they? Granted, the Met is trying to please its audience, perhaps blatantly so, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take this stuff seriously right?

This brings us to the comments of Charles K. Williams II in the recent The Acquisition and Exhibition of Classical Antiquities, edited by Robin F. Rhodes. Williams argues “Note that modern mythology is being manufactured at such a rate and in such quantity in the United States and norther Europe that it appears, at least to me, to be wiping out the need or desire to know, even less to understand, ancient epics, myths, and fables.” I don’t think the creation of modern myth is necessarily a bad thing. Williams, an esteemed field archaeologist argues we should ensure people can continue to view these objects around the world to maintain our connection with ancient myth. He argues we need more responsible international loans and a responsible international movement of objects. I agree.

To the unreasonable skeptic, both the labors of Hercules and the efforts of Tony Stark may seem childish, but if we are paying attention, putting the two side by side can teach us a lot about the darker side of powerful civilizations, the US and ancient Greece (and later the Roman empire).

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