Why museums need more art lending

By Felix Salmon
August 12, 2010
Eli Broad hasn't given up on his rallying cry, which I first wrote about two years ago:

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Eli Broad hasn’t given up on his rallying cry, which I first wrote about two years ago:

“If 90% of your work is in storage you need to begin lending it to other institutions. Get art out of the basements,” he said at the conference, which took place in his hometown of Los Angeles at the end of May. He then told The Art Newspaper: “With all the money being spent to store and conserve work, it doesn’t make sense economically or morally not to share it with the largest possible audience.”

Lacma on Fire has a very funny response, explaining that museums have a finite amount of shelf space, but Broad sounds as though he’s running Hilbert’s hotel.

Broad talks as if everything in his 2000-piece collection can and must eventually be on permanent view. The art that’s not in his planned museum will be lent out, notwithstanding the fact that this would require the equivalent of about ten Whitney Museums, sitting empty out in the hinterlands.

The bottom line is that there is more art than museum space to show it. Thus museum installations, particularly of contemporary art, are ever-changing and (to use the fashionable term) “curated.” What’s so bad about that?

This is true, but at the same time I’m sympathetic to Broad’s cause, even in the wake of his rather self-aggrandizing decision to set up his own museum. So where’s the hole in LoF’s argument?

There are two, I think. Firstly, it would be great if museums could carefully curate shows, using the vast quantity of unexhibited work in storage at museums as a glorious resource from which they could pick and choose as they liked. Unfortunately, that’s not how the world works in reality.

In the real world, organizing loans is a huge pain, and museums tend not to do it unless they have to or unless they’re organizing some big blockbuster show. Museum curators at would-be borrowing institutions tend not to be very enthusiastic about navigating the enormous amount of politics and paperwork involved, and administrators at would-be lending institutions are no more excited about trying to put in place all the protections needed for lending out their art. It’s so much easier to just keep it stored in their own basement.

One complicating factor here is the fact that museum funders tend not to give any credit for shows elsewhere which use artworks borrowed from the museum they support. Funders want to see the crowds and the shows at their museums, not someone else’s. And so they have little enthusiasm for using their museum staff’s time to help glorify some other institution. As a result, the system of inter-museum loans is based on all manner of mutual back-scratching, on the idea that the loaner is doing the borrower a favor, which should at some point be repaid.

The sad consequence is a very large number of shows culled only from a single museum’s permanent collection. Such shows are nearly always pretty thin gruel, unless they’re at a one of a handful of super-high-end museums. Smaller museums, in particular, simply don’t have the permanent collections needed to be able to curate great shows.

So having foundations dedicated to lending out art is a really great idea, I think. Such foundations could and should work proactively with museums who might benefit from borrowing their art, and make it as easy as possible for them to do so; the result would be much better shows at small and medium-sized museums around the country.

What’s more, while there might indeed be “more art than museum space to show it”, the situation is slightly different in Broad’s field of very expensive contemporary art, where museums simply can’t afford to acquire works by today’s biggest artists. (Nor might they want to, at these prices, given how uncertain it is that the works will turn out to be particularly important.) At the same time, many museums would love to be able to put on shows of such artists, without necessarily wanting them in their permanent collections. They can get a fair amount of cooperation from the artists’ galleries, but entities like the Broad Foundation would surely make life a lot easier still.

Meanwhile, there’s no harm, and potentially quite a lot of good, when large-scale museum benefactors like Broad encourage museums to start lending out their collections more. Philanthropists with their eye on the health of art museums as a whole, rather than individual institutions, are a good thing. Even when, as in Broad’s case, they retain a certain degree of fallibility and ego.

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