Towards a Commercial Art Museum:
an inevitable and healthful direction?

by Heather A. Fraser.

The commercial solutions to current financial problems being used in the art museum today may not be so bad...
The non-profit art museum's mandate and one of its objectives.
The non-profit art museum's dilemma over who it should serve.
A commercial art museum would serve its marketplace.
Why art museum vaults are bursting at the seams; why they do not deaccession although they can; and what some desperate museums are doing instead of deaccessioning.
The concern over the quality of a commercial museum's collection.
What of the commercial museum's duty to preserving history?

It is a complex and emotionally charged situation in which many non-profit art museums find themselves today. As government financial support of art museums continues to shrink, museum boards and staff are adopting attitudes and practices from the private sector -- witness the growth of the museum shops, corporate sponsorships, restaurants and blockbuster shows. Such developments are upsetting to many but seem inevitable. As museums look to commercial solutions, they are also forced to develop new management policies. In the future, we may see a sales staff working in tandem with curatorial. It is becoming clear that art museums and boards that wish to survive and thrive are beginning to rely less on government and more on their own resources for their financial well being. It may not be a bad direction. In fact, it may be healthful. The strongest, most financially sound museums of the near future may very well be commercial. But how would such a museum develop and operate? A commercial art museum would start over completely from scratch. To begin, it would develop a for-profit alternative to the typical mandate of the non-profit art museum.

The mandate of all non-profit art museums is a written authoritative order to which all museum decisions are deferred. The general mandate of all museums was outlined by the International Council of Museums, Paris, in 1973:

"[A museum is] a non-profit making permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits for the purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of man and his environment."

The above mandate contains a special, hidden objective which comes to light when we examine the history of museums. The founder of the Newark Museum, John Cotton Dana, wrote in 1909:

"The museum is... an educational institution that is set up and kept in motion that it may help the members of the community to become happier, wiser and more effective human beings."

From a contemporary perspective, Dana's pronouncement (lauded in Museums in Motion (p.13), a text used by the Canadian Museums Association in its Distance Studies Program) reveals the aim of a social elite to teach its values to the masses through the museum. This elite objective has changed little over time. Most art museums in Ontario were founded on an estate and collection of a prominent person/family. A museum's collection is developed by curators and an acquisition committee comprised of culturally homogeneous prominent community members. This group's task is to acquire art -- which, not unexpectedly, is to the taste of its own culture.

Given the elitist nature of an art museum's collection, its exhibitions are often unpopular. This is problematic since most art museums are publicly funded entities that must justify continued government assistance through their popularity. With generally low attendance figures, many museums are plagued by the problem of relevance of exhibition program to the visitor. Who should the museum serve? Should the museum board and staff provide what it believes is right and good or should it give the public what it wants? Without need to finance their own agenda, most museum professionals have almost consistently chosen the former. This choice is reiterated in the previously mentioned C.M.A. course book:

"Should the museum adapt its offerings to this somewhat elite audience, or should it take measures to attract older persons, minority groups, and less privileged classes? Obviously, a museum administration should determine its purposes, and not adopt programs just because they are popular."

With government grants drying up, how long can art museum administrators afford to ignore the marketplace?

A commercial art museum would embrace its marketplace. It would replace mandate with a vision and goals in relation to market forces. If vision is a nebulous desire to see oneself accomplishing something, that vision must be translated into goals that are realistic, measurable, and that have time frames. Such goals in the development of a commercial museum would be created in relation to a market and a thorough market analysis would determine what is possible. Success in the art museum business would be planned by offering products which the market would buy.

Every commercial art museum would look and feel and function in a manner different from any other museum because of market forces. Each commercial museum would also change over time due to market forces. The museum's goals must not be static. If ticket sales for an exhibition program drop but shop sales increase, the museum would change its exhibition program and focus on shop sales.

There was no plan for the future of many current art museums. After years of mandated art acquisition many museums have become warehouses for objects. And most museums have scant resources with which to carry out their mandate of caring for, exhibiting and educating the public on the plethora of cultural property bursting from overcrowded vaults. This situation is compounded by a visual art market distorted by supply management: government financial intervention protects all players in the system and allows the producers of art and art-related products (exhibitions and catalogues) rather than the art consumer to drive the market.

Some artists are protected by a litany of government grants (fast disappearing though) and by museum curators who apply on their behalf for exhibition grants and who purchase their art. The museums are protected by full operating grants from all levels of government. Supply management may result in some interesting artwork but it also results in the production of quantities of art and art related products (those many exhibitions and catalogues) for which there are no buyers.

For the art museum administrator, protection allows him to take a group of art objects from a donor for political reasons or in order to get the one object he really wants for his collection. Significantly, museums are mandated to collect art, not to sell it. All objects, once in the collection, are maintained indefinitely. Many museum collections include duplicate art works, and objects for which the community may have no current or historical relationship and no interest.

With overflowing vaults, art museums have considered deaccession. Art museums are generally established and given rules by an act of parliament. In these acts, most if not all art museums are given the common sense ability and power to sell or dispose of art in their collections. For example, the federal Museums Act allows the National Gallery of Canada to:

"...sell, exchange, or otherwise dispose of works of art and other museum material in its collection and use any revenue obtained therefrom to further its collection."

However, selling, giving away or destroying any part of a non-profit art museum's collection would be met with opposition from tax payers as well as the art community. Deaccession threatens the reputations of artists and may diminish the value of their art. Commercial galleries, auction houses, private collectors, and artists have high stakes in maintaining museum collections, and artists' reputations, as they are.

Without recourse, some desperate museums are 'deep-sixing' art, taking art from environmentally protected vaults and placing it into unseen spaces where it will be destroyed by the ravages of fluctuating temperature and humidity. Consider for a moment that these art objects may have been paid for by tax payer money through tax credits to donors, grants to create the objects, and the costs of storing, handling, appraising and insuring them through the museum. 'Deep-sixing' is only one of the prices of combining an entrenched mandate with an artificial market of supply management.

In a commercial art museum, the 'permanent' art collection would be only as large as the business could manage and it would be a flexible one. Objects would be acquired and sold as the market dictates. If an object was not making money for the business, it would be sold. An object would be worth only what someone is willing to pay for it.

And what of the quality of the commercial museum's collection if objects are sold at the whim of the market? Quality would only improve because it is crucial to the success of a commercial art museum. When people buy a product they also buy the good feelings that come with it. Quality may be measured by the depth of a customer's good feelings. For the commercial museum to thrive, it must attract and entertain as many people as possible. Happily, the better the quality of the museum's products the more numerous the customers.

One of the greatest objections to the idea of a commercial museum is the cultural worker's duty to preserving history. A commercial art museum, once it has fulfilled its responsibilities to the present in becoming a self-sufficient business, (see Bank, Art Business News One Response to Art Institution Woes for more on museum management) would be free to philanthropically collect history. At this point, the commercial museum may also develop those smaller audiences interested in more demanding and less popular forms and periods of art.

A stringent note must be made on sales in the art museum. Sales is the exchange of a product for money. In the art museum, sales is generally considered a crude word. It is 'euphemistically' renamed market development. This 'euphemising' results in an unfocused definition of function and leads to unfocused efforts. In art museums, staff members do not know what their product is. They are trying to market a fuzzy idea of what is right and good rather than selling a specific product. Sales is difficult and serious training of a sales staff is crucial. No other successful business in the world creates a product and then forgoes a sales staff and sales training.

If the observations and suggestions in this article make abundant sense to readers from the business community, they may come as a real shock to the art museum community which has been steering by the light of tradition, the status quo and its taste. And yet, with the twin condition of an elite taste bunkered by public funds and the chimera of national debt, no one should be surprised that many non-profit art museums are at the bottom of the list of priorities for government financial support. In the future, the commercial art museums may be the ones best able to acquire, conserve, research, communicate, and exhibit. They will have the money with which to do it.

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