Art at all costs

Megan Holloway Fort Art

Scene on the Magdalene by Frederic Edwin Church, 1854. This is one of two paintings sold last fall by the National Academy in New York to raise operating funds.

A series of recently announced budget cutting measures by a number of museums raises tricky questions about the value of the arts, the responsibilities of museums to the public and expectations for their profitability, and even the prospects of a degree in the humanities.

Just last week, the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced its decision to close fifteen of its satellite shops around the country, in addition to imposing a hiring freeze and curtailing staff travel and entertainment as well as the use of temporary employees. The museum’s president Emily Rafferty added that “we cannot eliminate the possibility of a head-count reduction.” The Indianapolis Museum of Art will eliminate fifteen full-time and six-part time jobs. Six vacant full-time positions will not be filled, and the use of temporary seasonal employees has been limited. In addition, several curatorial projects have been put on hold—the number of special annual exhibitions has been cut from three to two, and the opening of the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park has been pushed back to spring 2010. The High Museum in Atlanta is cutting $1.4 million from its budget, mostly by reducing staff salaries, requiring employees to take periods of unpaid leave, putting a freeze on hiring, redistributing staff responsibilities, and eliminating five full-time and three temporary positions. And so on, and so on.

All of the museums are promising that the various measures will not affect visitors’ overall experience, but one wonders: how is it possible that less programming and fewer staff members to create and implement these programs will not inevitably lead to a diminished experience? And if members of the public are getting less personal satisfaction from their visits, how can these institutions expect that memberships, donations, and attendance will not drop off more than they already have, leading to even greater financial shortfalls?

The National Academy Museum in New York did not appear to have its public in mind at all when it quietly sold two major Hudson River school paintings—Frederic Edwin Church’s Scene on the Magdalene from 1854 and Sanford Robinson Gifford’s Mount Mansfield, Vermont from 1859-for about $15 million to bolster its finances this past fall. But it should have. Many museum professionals and observers share the opinion that museums get tax-deductible donations of art and cash to safeguard art collections for the public and that selling off any holdings for profit thus betrays that trust, not to mention robs a community of art. Both the American Academy of Museums and the American Association of Museum Directors have firm policies against museums’ selling works of art because of financial hardship. Under the code of ethics of the American Association of Museums, the proceeds should be “used only for the acquisition, preservation, protection or care of collections.” The code of the Association of Art Museum Directors is even stricter, specifying that funds should not be used “for purposes other than acquisitions of works of art for the collection.” The National Academy planned to use the funds to cover shortfalls in its operating budget, and the museum’s director Carmine Branagan has since withdrawn her membership from both groups.

But, some have argued, isn’t it better for the community to have a museum sell artworks if the other option is to close altogether? Recent months have seen the ends of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and the Las Vegas Art Museum, among others. The public outcry was probably greatest in response to the Rose’s closing, but one person commenting on the scene in Las Vegas summarized it best: “The loss is quite a blow to the community.” Closing the National Academy would certainly be a blow as well.

To those of us who work in the field, these cuts and closings are particularly worrisome not only because they limit the public’s opportunities to engage with and learn from works of art and other museum programming-lectures, concerts, and other educational events—but also because of their impact on our individual careers. As is well known by anyone graduating with an art history degree, be it a B.A., M.A., or a Ph.D., the demand for good jobs always outnumbers the supply, leading to underemployment in terms of both level of responsibility and salary. Patricia Cohen’s recent article in the New York Times, “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth,” explores the problem at the institutional level: with the economy as bad as it is, can students and their parents justify spending, in many cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars for an education that doesn’t provide any practical job training? While this has certainly always been an issue-I can recall my parents even in the early 1990s asking me “But what are you going to do with a degree in art history?”-the question has even more urgency in our more complex and technologically demanding twenty-first-century world. In response, humanities departments at a number of colleges and universities are also now facing hiring freezes and head-count reductions, along with numerous other budget cutting measures.

As the depth and breadth of our current financial crisis becomes more apparent by the hour, one can only hope that art museums and humanities educations will not become luxuries that communities and families can no longer afford.