Museums USA

“Get art out of the basement”…

Eli Broad lectures museum professionals at their annual conference in Los Angeles

Eli Broad took US museums to task when their leaders assembled

NEW YORK. Philanthropist and art collector Eli Broad lectured the assembled professionals at the annual meeting of the American Association of Museums (AAM) about their responsibilities to their visitors and colleagues, and expressed his dismay that so many works in museum collections are rarely or never displayed. “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.”

Public funding

A stronger case for museums needs to be built, said Broad. By expanding their role as educators, he sees a greater chance for institutions to receive public support. It is the responsibility of those in the field to demonstrate to congress “why the arts are an important part of our economy”, he said. “Education is the way we can push it.” In response, AAM president Ford Bell acknowledged: “There is a potential for an art backlash if museums are perceived as warehousing art and not showing it.”


Controversy surrounding deaccessioning has indicated that a disparity exists between “the historic definition of museums and the reality of contemporary pressures”, said Delaware Art Museum curator Margaretta Frederick. With the depletion of funding for many museums, deaccessioning is likely to rise.

“There is an absolute necessity for openness and honesty,” said Maurice Davies, head of policy and communications at the UK Museums Association. Far more damaging than the actual sale is a cover up or denial, he said.


In keeping with the theme of transparency, the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) revised its deaccessioning policy in 2007. Since then the museum has sold off 900 works. In 2008, an online list of deaccessioned works became a permanent page on the museum’s website, which includes images, estimated values and reasons for deaccessioning. With a more straightforward approach, said IMA director Maxwell Anderson, museums can avoid potential penalisation from US lawmakers, many of whom are seeking to impose new forms of legislation and regulation. “Making the activities of a museum more obvious is essential in a more litigious world,” he said.

Lack of provenance

Dan Monroe, the executive director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, reported a meeting held there in March to find common ground between art museums and archaeologists.

One concern is the dilemma posed by “orphaned objects” in museum collections, said Claire Lyons, a curator for the department of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Speaking about artefacts acquired but undocumented prior to Unesco’s 1970 convention on prohibiting the illicit trade of cultural property, Lyons said that while there is a justification for publicly exhibiting such objects, there are still concerns that exposure “could undermine the rigorous acquisition guidelines that museums have put into place”.


Responding to rapid museum growth in regions such as the Gulf and the Far East, the International Council of Museums (Icom) stressed the need for US museums to work more internationally. Icom president Julien Anfruns said: “This is extremely important because [museums] closely follow the evolution of cultural geo-politics.”

Although excitement has been generated over emerging cultural epicentres, the breakneck speed at which they are being cultivated may mean potential dilemmas on the horizon, he said. “There are problems of training personnel, establishing rules for exchanging art, and standards of excellence in museology and museum studies.” He added: “We have to set standards for how to facilitate international exhibitions. All of this is critical because the investments for the next 30 to 40 years are being made now.”

Hispanic America

Changing demographics present a challenge to US museums that will continue to grow. “The non-Hispanic white person will move out of the majority status in the US over the next 30 to 40 years,” said Betty Farrell, the executive director of the Cultural Policy Center. “This means it is important for museums to understand nuances in order to form stronger relationships to newcomers who don’t frequent museums.”

Elizabeth Merritt, the director of the Center for the Future of Museums, said the shift in demographics “paints a troubling picture of the ‘probable future’—a future in which, if trends continue, museum audiences are radically less diverse than the American public, and museums will serve an ever shrinking fragment of society”.

More from The Art Newspaper


21 Aug 10
18:36 CET


Broad seems to be rather naive about how museums work. To lend art, you need a receiving institution that is willing to pay for transportation, insurance, loan fees (needed to keep the lending institution afloat), and provide a suitable space for storage and display. It is not simply a matter of art institutions being too greedy or lacking the imagination to share their treasures. No institution is going to invest so much capital unless the art works are really going to draw visitors. Unfortunately, not everything sitting in museum basements is an undiscovered treasure- often they are often simply lesser works, or works whose condition is too fragile to allow the to be displayed. They may be important to researchers, but are likely to be sniffed at by the general public accustomed to seeing stronger pieces. Museums do not exist only to display art to today's visitors, but also to preserve culture for scholars and future generations.

19 Aug 10
22:39 CET


As a museum professional I understand the concerns expressed here. Although I am thrilled by the enthusiasm of the public to view more of museums' collections, let it be known that many major museums are constantly reinstalling galleries with different objects and updated text panels and new perspectives on the art come to light since last installation. Furthermore, it takes money and space to show more art, plain and simple. Additionally, putting too many objects on view in finite spaces can be overwhelming for any viewer, whether public patron or scholar- this can 'turn off' enjoyment of the art and henceforth deter future patronage and support for cultural institutions. Museum curators, registrars, exhibition designers, etc. work very hard to ensure quality exhibition spaces that educate, entertain, and inspire museum goers. We too would like to display more art! To make this happen, appeal to your local legislators for public funding for the arts and support your local museum!

19 Aug 10
15:27 CET


Broad's right, of course, that museums should exhibit more. The problem is money. Tight public budgets can't get art out of basements -- they already threaten art in education. To reverse the trend toward layoffs downsizing exhibitions and outreach, artworks will have to support the arts. Their financial value in museums is the one realistically available fortune big enough to get art out of basements. Avoiding cultural depletion from deaccession requires new thinking, though. Coaccession™ preserves museums' cultural endowments while creating financial ones. Museums keep the property rights with an artwork's cultural value while selling the right with most of its financial value. This turns capital gains that can't pay for exhibits into stock and bond income that can, so a museum can have its Monet and money, too. Coaccession can start getting art out of the basement now while expanding art in the public domain rather than shrinking it. Mark White, PhD,

19 Aug 10
20:47 CET


Mr. Broad is correct, museums needs to get the stuff in storage either on disply or on loan to another institution that can and will display it. I don't know of any donor that gives works of art for the purpose of putting them in storage.

19 Aug 10
20:50 CET


i totally agree that the art in archives should be shown freely , i mean to say that what is not seen is not known. I image that there is a great deal of wonderful art being cast aside as unimportant such as the beautiful turn of the century norweigan painters work...........unhearalded and unknown. what a smart fellow to talk about bringing all the art out so the public can avoid boredom of seeing the same works all the time giving the museums the same level of enjoyment as the masoliums. hurray for genius like ideas!

19 Aug 10
20:58 CET


Museums, like all private and public collectors, remain reticent to exposing their collections primarily due to the lack of provenance or documented ownership. Such lack of transparency emboldens the source countries and their aggressiveness toward the market countries. Which will it be.... transparency with constructive negotiations or another millenium of hide and seek. So far we have one big masquerade party. Real progress will only come when the masks are off and the cards on the table. C'mon UNESCO, its been 40 years. Time to take this on and help the global trade in cultural property graduate to the next grade. Heck, it's almost September! Next to be discussed should be the academic communities approach to the trade i.e. reality versus perception.

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