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Revisiting the Future of Museums in the New Gilded Age

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

I recently reread a 2011 post by my former colleague Erik Ledbetter on the effect the “New Gilded Age” may have on museums. He wrote “The decline of the middle class and the reemergence of a true American plutocracy will have, I predict, some interesting consequences for museums. In an era when public budgets and private household wealth are both contracting, museums’ business models will be increasingly upset.” As it turns out, he was remarkably prescient in pegging the financial pressures that would lead museums into increasingly tight ethical spots. 

Now I’m thinking about the broader effects of the widening gap between the 1% of Americans who control 40% of the country’s wealth and everyone else. I see a plausible future in which US museums bifurcate as well, with one branch of our sector serving hoi polloi, and another providing exclusive experiences that don’t involve crowds, mingling with badly dressed tourists or hobnobbing with folks who have not taken a college-level course in art history

The development of exclusive museums would parallel the rise of other bespoke services that are creating a bubble world for the well-off. For example, I just read about Gravity, a bespoke gym for “C-suite” (read, wealthy) clients, with an entry fee of over $2000 and monthly fees of $460. For that you get blood analysis, a 3D body scan, in-house doctors and nutritionists and an app that helps you track progress and compete with other gym members. 

And I’ve paid close attention to the proliferation of boutique/concierge medical services that charge annual fees anywhere from $500 to $15,000. Ten years ago only about 500 doctors participated in such practices–now that is up to over 15,000. The physicians who choose this arrangement prefer it in part because it allows them to be better doctors. For example, instead of the 10 to 15 minutes allowed by most insurance coverage, they typically spend at least twice as long on an average visit. (This does more than simply create an elite tier of medical care for those who can afford it–some analysts are concerned that if this trend accelerates, it will undercut subsidized care for those who need it, upsetting the fragile balance that provides medical care for society as a whole.)

There is already evidence that this same exclusive, boutique ethos is infiltrating the museum world. On the periphery, there are high-end members-only art clubs for well-heeled, would-be collectors (e.g., The Cultivist). Closer to home, see the rise of private museums, created around personal collections, that can tightly control access to venues. This article cites a number of such organizations in Dallas. The New Yorker ran an extensive article on the  Boros Collection in BerlinAnd Erik noted in his post “In Ohio, an entrepreneur is building a new private railroad museum complete with a purpose-build roundhouse and turntable to house, restore, and display his collection of historic steam locomotives. When complete, his facility will be superior to the majority of public railroad museums in the country. Yet it is strictly a private venture, and the terms, if any, on which it will be accessible to the public remain unknown.” (See image below)

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I added a coda to Erik’s post, asking “Will selective pressure favor museums founded and funded by the new economic elite?” To which I will now add a couple more. Will these favored, “elite” museums be free and open to all (like the Broad), free, but limited, via reservations (like Glenstone), or invitation only (like Deedie Rose’ Pump House in Dallas)? And how would this bifurcated future affect the willingness of the one percent to support truly public museums, or of the rest of the population to support public financing of museums as a whole?

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