In any given year, some art museums have huge attendance at blockbuster exhibits that for one reason or another - be they Cezanne or motorcycles or Armani - strike a chord with the public. Other museums, meanwhile, have much smaller attendance at worthy and intellectually original exhibits that are neither blockbusters nor sensations.
Because big attendance means big revenue, the pressure toward obeying rather than shaping the public taste in art grows ever larger. You can fight city hall rather easily, to tell the truth, but you can't so easily fight the market. And, in recent years, as arts organizations have tried to justify their value with economic impact studies designed to show their popularity and relevance, a fat box office becomes even more important.
Moreover, those who surrender to it tend to make virtue of their necessity. The debates about popular culture invading "high" art are old now. Even so, when complaints arise about popular art displacing high art, the complainers are dismissed as elitist.
When complaints arise that even the high art shown has become boring by over-exposure, elitism is again the counter-charge: Our circus may be boring to the pampered few, comes the reply, but not to the suffering many, who have yet to see the circus even once.
Almost certainly, however, the elitism-populism debate obscures a deeper tension. The market system just described - roughly, the American system - is one in which the rich museums get richer and the poor get poorer.
The rich, however, do not want to defend the system for that reason, any more than the poor want to complain about it for that reason.
But what would be the effect if at the end of a given year, American museums all turned their revenues over for equitable redistribution by an agreed-upon arbiter? In that case, no outré curator need be banned from mounting a righteous exhibit on, say, professional wrestling, but no museum's bottom line would fatten up if such a show packed them in.
Unthinkable? In America, yes, but not everywhere. A system combining artistic laissez-faire for the curators with a socialization of the revenues would create in the United States a semblance of the current French system.
In France, which has been taking stock of its own museum scene this month as the eminent Françoise Cachin retires after seven years as Director of the Museums of France, a remarkable redistributive function is performed by an entity called the Réunion des musées nationaux.
It is understood that the largest Parisian museums - the Louvre, Versailles, the Musée d'Orsay - will always have disproportionately high revenues, but a péréquation des entrées, a carefully regulated annual redistribution of attendance revenue, permits the richer few to subsidize the poorer many all around the country.
Understandably, the richest museums are not entirely happy with this arrangement. An explosion in the construction and renovation of provincial museums in France has simultaneously increased the need for the RMN and increased resistance to it.
Though, fortunately, museum support has increased at the municipal level and though the Direction des musées de France already provides the provincials an amazing 40% of construction costs and 50% of art acquisition costs, many of these institutions still struggle.
The centralized system, as a result, is under pressure from both sides. And yet even if the French system is showing a few cracks, it remains an interesting model.
Granting that any proposal to create such a system in the United States would be dead on arrival at Capitol Hill, revenue-strapped American museums in a big city or a metropolitan region might still choose to create some semblance of it on their own.
As things stand, every museum has to get up and boogie every year or risk being thrown out by the market bouncer. But if revenues could be pooled, then this year museum X could do the wrestling show boogie, while museum Y did a whisper-quiet medieval sarabande.
At the end of the year, they could pool their revenues, and next year they could exchange roles. An insane idea, of course, but perhaps no less insane that the current high-stakes, big-budget competition for a population of middlebrow American museum-goers that simply has not grown apace with museum construction.
The choice, in short, may not be between sanity and insanity but, to quote Benjamin Franklin, between hanging together and hanging separately. Pooling revenues may not be the best and certainly is not the only way to hang together, but the cash-strapped museums of the United States are separately no match for the market hangman.
The author's name is withheld by request.
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