Museums Without Boards?

Although Artopia is still on vacation, the following items of interest in regard to museums are offered for your perusal:

#1. If you want a humorous, sarcastic take on art museums, then The Art Museum Activity Book by The Guerrilla Girls, published by Printed Matter, is just what the art doctor ordered. Of course, I have to state right here that in Artopia there is no need for The Guerrilla Girls. In Artopia, unlike in so-called real life,women artists and artists of color are given their due. Also in Artopia, museums are perfectly managed, and there is not even a hint of conflict of interest. 


#2 Metrics of Success in Art Museums, by Maxwell L. Anderson, former director of the Whitney Museum, was commissioned by the Getty Leadership Institute. On the surface, this little screed is, as the author claims, “a partial remedy for uncertainties within the largest museums by suggesting ways of identifying and measuring institutional success.” Anderson writes that “All is not well in the art museum profession. Within the confines of their board rooms, American art museums today are beset as never before by disagreement about their priorities.” Anderson then makes the shocking suggestion that museum trustees should actually be required to know the stated mission of their particular institution.

But before Anderson offers his check-list in service of quantifiability (as opposed to accountability), he reveals that “case law in California and Texas has now established that traveling exhibitions are unabashedly commercial activities and that exhibition catalogues are commercial publications.” In his opinion, these rulings “presage a new era of scrutiny of museums’ activities, with an eye toward further reducing or eliminating their tax-exempt status.”


If it is now generally perceived that art museums are not the cathedrals of art they once pretended to be, but are sometimes entertainment enterprises or, even worse, screens for trustee self-enrichment, changes may be needed. Artopia does not subscribe to the folk wisdom that “if you try to fix it, you’ll only break it.” Artopia believes in fixing things before they break.

For museums to maintain credibility — and thus the credibility of visual culture — they must not be perceived simply as instruments of power and profit for the few.

What should be done?

We know it’s not the museum directors or curators who are at fault. But maybe it’s not their museum-trustee bosses, either. Maybe it’s the structure.

We do not need yet another Getty exercise in quantification, particulary one that ends up, like Anderson’s checklist, with the unenforceable banalities perpetuated by the American Association of Museums. What the Getty Foundation should do is fund an investigation of art museum governance structures.

We already know the European structure: more or less total government financing, but also government control.

On the other hand, our weird system in the United States is based on a subterfuge. Since no one thought conservative politicians would back direct funding of art, we developed a method of indirect financing. Because museums are tax-exempt, they get government services for free: police, fire protection, etc. Furthermore, anyone can deduct a donation to a nonprofit from their taxable income — and in the case of artworks, stocks, and property, at the appreciated value.

What really needs to be investigated is other structures. Should we look at for-profit museums? After all, the history of museums in the U.S., except for a few curio-cabinets, begins with P.T. Barnum’s definitely for-profit museum (1841-1865) at Broadway and Ann Street in Lower Manhattan.

Artopia, however, is officially against taking nonprofit status away from art museums, our churches of art, unless this sub-rosa government support is also taken away from all other churches.

So in Artopia, where Jonathan Swift is one of our patron saints, we do not throw out the baby with the bath: we throw out the tub. We are bored with boards. No matter what lack of responsibility they show, they never are called to task.

Think of all the time museum directors and curators would have for fundraising, administration, exhibition planning, and community work if they did not have to service 30 or 40 board members. The museum model should be that of a small business, rather than a corporation. Think of the transparency of accountability. When things go wrong, we would actually know who to blame. Or eat.

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