Museums USA

Ownership isn’t everything—The future will be shared

Museums don’t have to own art. We can commission it, or we can borrow and return it. Stewardship is the new normal

MoMA, New York, and the Laurenz Foundation, Basel, together preserve Matthew Barney's "Drawing Restraint" archive

Art museums maintain that the ongoing acquisition of new objects is the crux of their mission, and that all their other activities stem primarily from additions to the permanent collection. But there are three primary reasons to question that orthodoxy today, hinging on ethics, cost, and scarcity.

The first motivation to rethink the traditional collecting paradigm is that ethics now routinely inform deliberations about museum acquisitions. While the swashbuckling antics recounted in Thomas Hoving’s King of the Confessors (1981) once prevailed, entire categories of works of art now demand extraordinary scrutiny, whether sought as acquisitions by purchase, gift, or bequest. These categories include archaeological materials and ancient art, ethnological objects important to the narrative of enduring or long-lost cultures, and works that may be the subject of legitimate ownership claims, such as paintings by old masters, or modern masters with Holocaust-era provenance gaps.

With regard to cost, the escalation of private collecting has increased prices to such an extent that museums are effectively excluded from the market. Museums today do what they can to convince collectors to donate the objects we need. While this strategy worked well in the past, the transfer of great private collections to public institutions can no longer be assumed. Collectors are increasingly choosing to put their holdings up for trade or sale, to memorialise their taste in private museums, or to offer large or long-term loans of objects to museums without guaranteeing their eventual donation.

The third greatest challenge to traditional collecting hinges on scarcity, which is of course connected to mounting cost. The vast majority of masterworks from the Renaissance through the beginning of the modern era are already in public collections. Much modern and contemporary art is colossal in scale, of evanescent materials, or experiential—and inherently uncollectable. And while much digitally-based work is replicable ad infinitum, it is subject to a compact of editions in a quest to assure rarity and therefore value.

Where are we left, if ethics, cost and scarcity are making it more and more difficult for museums to collect art as in the past? I don’t think we are any worse off, provided that we change our language from “collect” to “gather”.

If we gather art for research and display, we don’t have to own it. We can commission it, or we can borrow and return it. Stewardship is the new normal—ownership matters less and less in the increasingly restless worlds of both bits and atoms, as ebooks and timeshares have proved. Museums have to devote the largest part of their budgets to caring for the permanent collection, but the public is increasingly demanding impermanent experiences, such as loan exhibitions, and tires of seeing the same works in the same context year after year. While as museum curators and directors we shake our heads at this dismaying phenomenon, and make pilgrimages to see familiar works in familiar places, that covetousness is becoming quaint. In an era of jet travel, careful packing and shipping, high-quality digital reproductions, and licensing versus buying, the enjoyment of static collections is less important to most people than the enjoyment of works not before seen, or not before seen in combination with other works.

A new premise that gathering art, rather than only owning it, is the best way forward, offers a wide range of related benefits. Among these are the following: a more ethical starting point for safeguarding cultural heritage than the hunt for legal title; the reduced overhead costs of caring for a more selectively growing collection; a more nimble sensibility about what can be successfully presented in acres of galleries heretofore limited to the permanent collection; and greater temporary access to important works than most museums can afford to obtain permanently. Given the challenges of ethics, cost and scarcity, museums should consider turning their attention to gathering people, expertise, objects, and experiences, and relinquishing the single-minded quest of ownership as our overarching goal.

If we can think of art circulation via “catch and release” as a viable alternative to hanging a trophy on a wall, the art ecosystem may come into better balance, reducing the impetus for vertiginous rental fees or inappropriate benefits to potential donors that distort the mission of museums. Barter among art museums is a much more efficient system than rental, whether the barter currency in exchange for loans is other art, or expertise, or excellent care. When it makes sense to acquire a work, by all means pursue it. But the alternatives to ownership will in many instances yield great benefits in protecting heritage, new scholarship, public enjoyment, and institutional vitality. n

The writer is the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. This is adapted from a paper given to the 2010 annual meeting of the Association of Art Museum Directors. To read in full “Gather, Steward, and Converse” see related article.

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30 Sep 10
19:23 CET


This is all very well. Do you think you could persuade MacGregor, Cuno and other Western museum directors to lend a couple of the Benin bronzes to the Nigerian Government?

19 Sep 10
15:57 CET


I really enjoyed reading this piece and agree with the authors comments. To me life is about 'discovery and experience'- something art offers a plenty. Readers may wish to read more about the fractional ownership of art here -

16 Sep 10
15:20 CET


I would like to recommend anyone to read a book by American anthropologist Lewis Hyde - titled 'The Gift'-i think it is a comforting social anthropological explanation to everything that this new approach could provide. Well worth picking up at the store

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