Thursday, January 24, 2008

Smugglers and Curators and Oprah--Oh My!

Two news items have the museum world a-buzz today: first, the reported sting operation that resulted in simultaneous raids on four Southern California art museums early this morning and second, Oprah Winfrey touching the Ruby Slippers on her show.

The raids took place at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Bowers Museum, the Pacific Asia Museum and the Mingei International Museum performed by federal and IRS agents armed with warrants. The raids were the "first public move in a five-year investigation of an alleged smuggling pipeline that authorities say funneled looted Southeast Asian and Native American artifacts into local museums." At the root of the pipeline are Robert Olson and LA gallery owner Jonathan Markell. According to the LA Times, the warrants clearly suggest that officials and curators at some of the museums were aware that the objects brought to them by these two men had been looted.

Meanwhile, Oprah fans seem to be as incensed as the museum community if not more so by Oprah's actions on her national television program earlier this week. Despite having been told by National Museum of American History Director Dr. Brent Glass that she could not touch the famous slippers and even going so far as to tell Oprah that he almost never touched the slippers, even with gloves on, Oprah insisted on not just on touching the Dorothy's ruby slippers but grabbed them and waved them around in the air. While comments on the Museum-L listserv (the listserv for the museum profession) have focused on how the Smithsonian could have been better prepared for Oprah's capricious behavior--as well as more generally how museums can better prepare for and protect against mishandling by celebrities and other VIPS--Oprah's fans simply shamed her for her actions, calling her a "spoiled child" and accusing her of thinking she is above normal codes of behavior.

Monday, January 14, 2008

To Be Free or Not To Be Free

Well, in the great age-old debate of whether or not museums should be free, there appear to be two more arguments in favor. According to the New York Times, attendance at "Sweden’s national museums dropped nearly 20 percent last year after they ended their free admissions policy." Meanwhile France will begin experimenting with free admission at 18 national museums in order to attract more young people and foreign visitors.

Make that three votes for free admissions. Although they have had to work to find alternatives to the revenue once generated by admission fees, directors of some of the largest and most notable museums in Britain wrote in favor of their nation's free admission policy enacted a few years ago, stating that

Visits to former charging museums have increased by 87% and have attracted more diverse audiences. An extra 16 million children have visited museums since they were granted free entry in 1998, and the number of visits from people from lower socio-economic groups has risen to 6.5 million in 2004-05.

Of course, in Britain the admissions repeal was accompanied by additional government funding for the museums.

Friday, January 11, 2008

...On the Other Hand...

Perhaps I was hasty in stating that I thought Eli Broad's notion that lending rather than giving would be an effective new model for art donor/museum relationships was a trifle naive. I am reminded of the Museum Loan Network, that works to achieve just exactly that same sort of dynamic--and for roughly the same reasons--at its core, the Museum Loan Network "strives to make objects of cultural heritage more accessible to the public by encouraging collecting institutions to share these works over extended periods of time." So what that means in essence is that if a museum has a decent collection of say, pre-Columbian art, but that it just doesn't have the exhibit space to display and so the collection is languishing in storage, not being used or viewed by anyone, that museum can list this collection on the Museum Loan Network (complete with photos and documentation) for long-term use by another museum. In the past, loans carried out in this manner have even been used to populate "permanent" exhibitions (after all, generally speaking permanent exhibits usually only last between 5 and 20 years).

What's more, although recent changes to the tax code have all but obliterated the practice of fractional giving--the act of donating an artwork a little bit at a time over a period of several years--that form of giving was not all that different from a long-term loan, at least until the artwork was completely and finally 100% the property of the museum. With fractional giving, a museum only owned and controlled the artwork for the percent of time in a year that was equivalent to the percent of the artwork donated. For example, if a patron donated 25% interest in an artwork, the museum controlled that artwork for one quarter of the year. During the other three quarters of the year, the artwork was on loan and the donor held the right to ask for its return for that portion of the year. In this way, a donor could take tax deductions in small chunks over the course of many years rather than in one lump sum in one year.

But in 2006, the Pension Protection Act was signed into law, amending the tax code to heavily curtail fractional gifts, chasing away a lot of would-be donors from seeking that particular form of tax deduction. Which again means that perhaps Eli Broad's model is not only a viable one but one that other art collectors will follow. Since they may not be able to receive a tax deduction the way they want (or need) it through their artworks, why not instead use their collections to establish educational foundations that serve as lending libraries to museums? Except, of course, that the newly proposed Promotion of Artistic Giving Act might change all that...I for one will be very interested to see how this all plays out.

A Surprise and Not a Surprise

Two events occurred this past week in the art world, one that caught me off guard and another that didn't surprise me in the least. Oddly enough, I think for most people, the news affected them in the opposite manners.

The first event was the announcement of the inimitable Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, that he would step down from his position by the end of 2008 or whenever a suitable replacement was found.

Mr. de Montebello is 71 and has served as the director of the Met for 30 years. So why then did the news shock me? Well, perhaps in part due to the partial misdirection of a New York Times article from this past July that stated and restated emphatically that Mr. de Montebello had no plans to retire.

But there was something a bit odd in the tone of the article; on the one hand it kept insisting that Mr. de Montebello did not intend to retire, while on the other hand it mentioned that, "if his impending retirement really isn’t on Mr. de Montebello’s mind, it’s on the mind of just about everyone else at the Met, including the trustees and curators, who are powerfully aware that he is the last of a breed" as well as the names of several possible successors. Given this week's news, now I wonder: did the reporter have some secret knowledge as to de Montebello's real plans that he simply wasn't at liberty to divulge? One thing I do know for certain however, regardless of who the next director of the Met will be, Mr. de Montebello will be one tough act to follow.

The second event, the one that I did not find surprising but that has apparently left the art world--and in particular the Los Angeles art scene--reeling is that Eli Broad has announced that he will not donate his collection to any one museum, but rather will keep it in his foundation and lend it out for educational purposes. This news has hit the Los Angeles County Museum of Art particularly hard as they are about to unveil in February the brand new Broad Contemporary Art Museum on their campus. The reason given by Mr. Broad for why he made this decision was that over the past year he has become increasingly aware of the fact that no museum could guarantee that a sizable percentage of his collection would be on view, thereby leaving some in storage out of the public eye. This proposition didn't sit well with Mr. Broad's desire that his collection be available for educational purposes at all times.

Now, given that Mr. Broad gave a substantial amount of money to LACMA to build the new BCAM and that the intent seemed to be that the new museum would be populated by a fair number of pieces from the Broad collection, I suppose it was only natural that LACMA officials assumed that Mr. Broad would donate the pieces--or perhaps the entire collection--to the new museum. But no formal agreement was ever made to that effect and as far as I'm aware, Mr. Broad never even gave any part of his collection as a "promised gift;" his intention was always to lend rather than give. That's why I'm not surprised by this situation.

What's more, a quick trip to the Broad Art Foundation website shows very clearly that Mr. Broad's decision is not a new stance for him:

The Broad Art Foundation operates as an educational and lending resource for contemporary art and is dedicated to building a collection that reflects the scope and diversity of the art of our time...The Broad Art Foundation assists museums striving to present contemporary art in a complex economic and cultural climate. While private collectors can limit the accessibility of contemporary artists' work, the Foundation's collection is available for loan to museums and university galleries through its "lending library" program. [source]

Now, what is a perhaps a little surprising to me is Mr. Broad's statement that he believes that museums should share artworks and that other collectors should follow his "new model" of serving as a lending library rather than giving donations of art. I am inclined to agree with art blogger and curator Marshall Astor when he says that this belief of Broad's is a bit naive. Astor looks at it from a curatorial standpoint:
If this became the norm, I really have trouble seeing a museum curator of contemporary works in say 2030 being able to build a really concise and meaningful permanent exhibit. Identity, that is the identity of the collection, is what makes museums work. Were collectors en masse to follow Broad’s proposed model, the long term development of comprehensive and meaningful collections could become a Sisyphean task.

However, I also think that other collectors would be reluctant to follow Mr. Broad's example because, like it or not, a huge incentive for donating to museums is financial--without a donation, there is no tax deduction.

But the real question still remains: what will LACMA do to populate the new building? Will they display mostly pieces on loan from the Broad Art Foundation, or will they instead start looking elsewhere for other contemporary art collectors willing to donate?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Observations on the Observatory

Photo by Matthew Field.

In November 2006 following four years of renovations, expansion and earthquake retrofitting, the Griffith Observatory re-opened to the public. This past Saturday, I finally braved the still-excited crowds of visitors making their pilgrimages up the hill in Griffith Park and paid a visit to the Observatory.

Despite the throngs, I really did enjoy it. The upstairs galleries are small, heightening the feeling of the crowds, but they are definitely worth taking the time to view, for me especially on the west side of the building in the Hall of the Sky where there are some of the best didactic representations of astronomical answers to common questions such as why do we have tides, how do the seasons work and what is an eclipse? Also in the Hall of the Sky are a coelostat and three solar telescopes, allowing visitors to defy their mothers warnings and look directly at the sun, witnessing sunspots, solar flares and seeing the full spectrum of light emitted by our solar system's star.

Another personal favorite of mine in the Hall of the Sky was the Observatory's depiction of the Periodic Table of Elements--with actual specimens or examples of each element (except for the dangerous radioactive ones, such as plutonium). Pressing a button on the display highlighted the elements found in planets, stars and even ourselves! Imagine my surprise when I learned that tin is one of the major elements that comprise humans...

Downstairs in the Gunther Depths of Space the exhibits are devoted to exploring the unique attributes of each planet in our solar system and the wonders of space in general. Here an interactive display afforded visitors the opportunity to see how asteroids, meteors, comets and other interstellar travelers could impact the landscape of the earth. I regret to inform everyone that I successfully created an asteroid large enough (1000 KM) and dense enough so that even though it was moving at a relatively slow rate, it's approach towards the earth at a 70 degree angle completely obliterated our planet upon impact in the ocean. Other visitors merely left craters with their impacts, and some created meteorites so small and light that they burned up in the earth's atmosphere.

The common element in all of these exhibits that I enjoyed so much was that they, as writing instructors everywhere advise, showed me instead of telling me. That is the beauty of science museums for me, that everyday visitors get to become the scientists: observing, using advanced instrumentation and trying things out to see what happens (they don't always result in complete annihilation).

The Hall of the Eye on the east side of the building also has that potential, with holographic dioramas that tell stories about the development of telescopes and other astronomical viewing devices--I think, but I'm not entirely sure because unfortunately this hall has a fatal flaw; it was absolutely impossible for me to hear anything that was said in the little vignettes. Use of cones of silence or listening hoods or even just earphones would help to make this hall be all that it can be.

My one other concern about the Observatory was that the way-finding was completely incomprehensible. We arrived at the beautiful building (noting as we passed each planetary orbit embedded in the ground, including Pluto) and marched up to the front door only to be confronted with a sign that literally read, "Entrance" but just below that, "Not an Entrance." Huh? We circled the building completely once, seeing all sorts of doors that did not appear to be where we were supposed to enter, but finally ducked into one anyway, only to discover that most people had simply ignored the baffling sign on the front door. Once inside, we had trouble figuring out how to get from the upstairs to the downstairs and back again and ended up going back outside, down and through the cafeteria to find the Gunther Depths of Space.

But way-finding aside, our trip to the Observatory was a fun one and the icing on the proverbial cake was our viewing of "Centered in the Universe" in the Samuel Oschin Planetarium. Narration was performed live by Observatory staff as the fantastic, brand new Zeiss Universarium Mark IX star projector and two Digistar 3 digital laser projectors transported us from the early days before telescopes to current theories about how the universe moves and functions and through our solar system out to the far reaches of space.