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Monday Musing: Paying the Rent(al)

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
You may have noticed I snuck in an extra post on the Blog today, encouraging you to start as soon as possible on session proposals for the 2015 AAM meeting in Atlanta.

Now back to the (semi)regularly scheduled Monday Musing with a 15 minute thought on a recent story in the press–this time yesterday’s article by Sebastian Smee in the Boston Globe : MFA expands loans of well-known works

It is a longish article, well worth a thoughtful read. Smee is following up on a quote from MFA director Malcolm Rogers in an interview last year, about the “traffic jam of missing masterpieces” loaned out by the MFA. He compares the MFA’s loan practices to those of other institutions (the Met, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, the National Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago), arguing that the MFA is out of step with its peers by virtue of frequently charging significant fees for these loans, concluding that “masterpieces are being treated as cash cows and spending long stretches away from the museum’s walls.”
Smee, in assessing the situation, notes that “MFA board members familiar with the museum’s financial situation have told the Globe the fee-based loans, which they said have brought in earnings approximating $5 million this year, are also about paying down debt and balancing the budget.” He concludes these loan fees are a financial strategy the museum has come to rely on in the past decade. 
You’ll have to decide for yourself how well Smee makes his case. My interest was piqued by the fact that he goes from reporting his interpretation of what is happening at the MFA, to projections about how this might affect the future of museums as field, concluding that “The long-term risk is that many of America’s greatest museums might become like glorified rental facilities, their most celebrated art works treated as chips in a bigger game of profit-making and civic diplomacy.”
He quotes Rogers as saying that lending works in return for fees will be a trend of the future: “Museums are going to be doing it more and more.” while noting that Anna Somers Cocks, editor of The Art Newspaper wrote in 2008 “why should [museums] be deserving of tax-free status, of donations from business and the rich, of being considered superior to ordinary commercial life if they themselves become so commercial as to rent [out] their collections?”
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Over to you. For your consideration this Monday:

  • Based on your observations, are fee based loan programs (with fees intended to generate significant profit, not just cover costs) more common than they used to be? Is this, in fact, a trend?
  • When such loans are made to for-profit companies (such as the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and the Linea d’Ombra, both mentioned in the article) how does this affect the landscape of museums’ competition for exhibits and blockbusters based on “authentic objects?” 
  • What are the responsibilities for a museum to balance the needs of local and remote audiences, and to preservation vs. access to collections? Do technological advances in digital reproduction, virtual reality and telepresence change the outcome of these decisions?
  • If museums demonstrate they can use fee-based loans as a significant income stream, in the future, might we be pressured to maximize the income from collections via loans before turning to public support? (Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr suggested as much in talking about how the DIA could make money from its collections, short of outright sale.) Would it erode, as Cocks forecasts, our case for being deserving of tax-exempt status?

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