The elephant in the art museum

The Elephant in the Room, Banksy, from Wikimedia
The Elephant in the Room, Banksy exhibition, 2006 Barely Legal show, Los Angeles

If the white boxes within art museums have grown larger and larger over the years, is it perhaps to accommodate the increasing girth of the elephants that museum communities would rather not discuss?

One of the largest of the herd is the question of de-accessioning, an elephant that became starkly visible on or about May 24th, 2014 at the Detroit Art Museum, before being quickly re-cloaked by a unanimous Michigan State Senate Committee.

It is taboo for museums to ever consider selling art from their collections in order to meet expenses. But it is generally considered okay to sell something if the money is used to acquire other art, e.g., to better focus a collection.

There are good reasons for this taboo. Public galleries are very literally not-for-profit. If a practice of selling works from collections was condoned, galleries might quickly drift toward profit-centred acquisitioning, as in “I wonder how much we could get for that 10 years from now?” That kind of market play should be left in the hands of dealers and collectors who are better equipped to speculate and suffer the consequences.

The mission behind museum collections is to preserve great art and give the public access to it, neither of which can be done as effectively in private hands. Selling work has nothing to do with either.

On the other hand, it has been said that too much art is now trapped in museums. Once all the Van Goghs or Tom Thomsons are in public hands, the intrigues and competition of the private market aren’t there to stimulate interest.

Are there other constructive ways of thinking about collections that are still consistent with their purpose? How about a cycle of “catch and release,” taking work into public collections, divesting it after a time (such as 50 or 100 years) so the museum can financially benefit from the phenomenon of market inflation and the work can be coveted and fought over and celebrated in the marketplace once more, eventually to be donated again to another museum, creating both new tax benefits for the philanthropist and new thrills in the museum world?

Maxwell Anderson’s view of 2012: museums (and publishing)

Reproduction of Picasso linocut from the Remai collection.
Picasso, Portrait de jeune fille d'après Cranach le jeune II, 1958, linocut on paper, Remai Art Gallery, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Evaluations of the previous year at the turn of the new year are generally popular, refreshing memory and promoting sober reflection. 2012 was, after a promising start, a miserable year by all accounts, including that of Maxwell Anderson, as expert and independent a thinker on the subject of art museums as one can find in the US of A.

Writing in the December issue of Artforum, Anderson observes an untoward over confidence and release of extravagance after years of measured caution and terrified parsimony brought on by the financial crisis of 2008. Anderson decries the financial short sightedness of museums, whose boards churn through directors while ignoring their fundamental missions and chasing trivial (and largely unattainable) goals like attendance to justify their institutiions.

Anderson usefully lists the criteria by which he believes boards should be evaluating their museums’ work: “the extent to which they care for our cultural heritage past and present and advance research, understanding, and awareness of the value of aesthetic endeavor.”

Anderson spends a lot of column inches on the most sensational news of 2012, how Jeffrey Deitch was challenged after his appointment to the directorship of the LA Museum of Contemporary Art when artists on his board abandoned ship after Deitch sacked veteran curator Paul Schimmel and dumped already scheduled projects for his own. Anderson’s piles on with the others, but his complaints sound shrill. If museums are stuck in various malaise, who better than Deitch, with his outsider status and dealer experience, to throw open the gates of privilege or try to develop more open and interesting relationships between museums and the market?

Acquisitions are another thing that make headlines in the museum world. Anderson notes a few of  what he calls marquee art acquisitions, transformative gifts and bequests, including 405 Picasso prints donated to Saskatoon’s civic gallery by the Frank and Ellen Remai Foundation, a gift substantial enough to bring the respectable, regional Mendel Art Gallery (now renamed the Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan) to the attention of the international art world.

Most interesting are Anderson’s compliments to the city of Detroit for instituting tax-based (mill rate) funding for the Detroit Institute of Arts, following a grassroots campaign that argued the  extrinsic benefits to the community, including the multiplier economic effect, programs for the disabled and safer streets. Solid municipal support like that is more common here in Canada but needs to be even more universal, and at consistent funding levels.

In conclusion, Anderson appeals for more thoughtful and substantive support for art museums’ intrinsic activities: research, collections care, publishing and conservation. But looking hard at those programs may turn up problems just like the equivocal attitude to museum leadership and the preoccupation with attendance, like the looming collections crisis: vaults over-crowded with indifferent works acquired in boom times, with no room left, or budgets to support, the art being made today, or the on-going problem of donations that look good in annual reports but saddle institutions with costs they can ill-afford, in perpetuity.

Similarly, publishing continues to be fraught with contradictions, as Anderson notes earlier in the article: Why do museums persist in spending lavishly for exhibition catalogues that sell few copies to only the very narrowest segment of museum patrons?

There are answers to that question (e.g. publishing contributes in a fundamental way to the integrity of an institution by manifesting its commitment to, and capacity for, top notch research), and to  others that address the core of the museum. Overall, Anderson’s year-end review calls for a refocusing on things that really matter. He has created a useful agenda to guide discussion and work in 2013.


Maxwell Anderson is a highly respected thought-leader within the art museum community,  former director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, and currently the director of the Dallas Museum of Art.






Is your non-profit ready for the new federal and Ontario not-for-profit acts?

All federally-incorporated arts associations and organizations need to check their bylaws to make sure they conform to the new Not-For-Profit Corporations Act and re-file their governing documents. The good news is there’s lots of time; until the fall of 2014. The bad news is there are no exceptions. Failure to file what are called Articles of Continuance will result in your organization ceasing to exist.

For Ontario-incorporated organizations, there is similar new legislation, but it is coming on more quickly, by January 1st, 2013. Fortunately, Ontario organizations are not under threat of extinction; the new Act will be deemed to override any provisions in existing bylaws that are not consistent. That doesn’t mean assuming governing bylaws are fine because they may not be; Ontario non-profits would also benefit from conducting a bylaw review and making changes as needed to comply with the new laws. Some pointers on how to proceed are outlined below.

While the long-promised Ontario transition guide has still not materialized, the federal government has provided the Act and Regulations and a Transition Guide here:

Act available here:
Regulations available at:
New forms and guidance from Corporations Canada:

According to Michael Anderson, Executive Director of the Canadian Society of Association Executives, a good process to ensure compliance will:
– Require a strong and dedicated effort
– Involve experienced volunteers and senior staff
– Take longer than expected
– Use agendas carefully crafted to keep the work moving forward
– Quickly capture changes to ensure accuracy
– Review proposed changes at each meeting to ensure consensus
– Regularly brief legal counsel, who are clear about their role as advisors, not leaders of the process.

spreadsheet for not-for-profit bylaw evaluation
Michael Anderson showed this sample of a spreadsheet the CSAE is using to methodically evaluate and modify their bylaws.
Anderson encourages organizations to get started as soon as possible because most organizations will need their members to approve bylaw changes and there is usually but one opportunity a year for that, at the AGM, so members will need one meeting (2013) to discuss proposed bylaw changes, and then another (2014) to approve a final version, in good time for filing of Articles of Continuance by October 17, 2014.

As Anderson noted, this is all pretty daunting, but “hope is not a strategy.” Being pro-active is, and a thorough bylaw review can be a healthy and rewarding experience for any organization.

If you would like help setting up a process or have other questions about the new Acts, please get in touch via our contact page:

Kathleen Bartels vs. Bob Rennie: Both right.

Friday dance band at the de Young art museum in San Francisco
Dancing at the de Young: In the future, the exhibition and conservation of art may not be the only, or even the primary function of the art museum.

It is further evidence of the increased public awareness and popularity of the visual arts that the Globe and Mail should publish a cover feature story this past weekend about the effort to get a new building for the Vancouver Art Gallery (The Collector’s Gamble, G & M, August 11, 2012).

There has been talk of a new building for years, with updates periodically about possible locations. It doesn’t appear to be a question whether it is possible to raise the $300 million estimated to be needed given ever more gloomy economic forecasts. Rather, journalist Marsha Lederman sees the hold up in a struggle between gallery director Kathleen Bartels and Vancouver real estate developer and art  collector Bob Rennie, who are not merely vying to determine the best location for a new gallery building but debating matters much more fundamental to the role of the museum today.

According to Lederman, art collector Bob Rennie, who is now running his own art museum, thinks the $300 million would be better spent building eight or ten smaller venues dispersed throughout the city. Bartels disagrees, citing concerns about fractioning the visitor experience, stealing audiences away from local galleries, as well as increased operating costs and program challenges.

They’re both right.

Having recently visited the de Young Museum in San Francisco, a stunning building by Herzog and de Meuron, on a Friday night when the foyer was packed with people dancing to a live jazz band, one would be hard pressed not to favour Bartels viewpoint: without doubt Vancouver could use a piece of international celebrity architecture, even if there’s only a drop of “Bilbao effect” still to be wrung from the global cultural tourism market. People like to know where the action is and to get to it easily, and inner cities need constant reinforcement, all of which support a centralized approach.

Tate St. Ives
One of four Tates, Tate St. Ives looks out on Porthmeor Beach. The others are Tate Britain (the original), Tate Liverpool (1988) and Tate Modern (2000).

Bartels is also indisputably right about the management issues associated with operating multiple venues and running distinct programs in each. According the recent New Yorker profile of Tate director Nicholas Serota, he is an excellent delegator, charging his captains to run the four separate wings of the Tate. Bartels too is reputed to be a good delegator: letting her experienced and expert staff shape the VAG program. But running multiple venues on the scale Rennie is talking about calls for a different scale and type of management altogether; it’s something more like a franchise.

On the other hand, Rennie’s vision is timely as condo building and the real estate frenzy in Vancouver  continues unabated. Each jewel in his museum “necklace” would create a hub for investment, multiplying development opportunities. Rennie knows how museums make great anchors, attracting business and promoting gentrification. They can also be icons around which city and regional marketing campaigns gather momentum.

More fundamentally, the idea of bringing culture to where people are is an important one, hardly new but potentially game changing; Rennie proposes to make real a concept to which many people have been giving lip service for decades.

While many observers say the role of the museum is changing, conveying with some urgency that museums need to be proactively reinventing themselves if they hope to stay relevant, justifying sustained public and private investment, the shape and program of the museum of the future is as yet  unclear.

The art museum will always be an archive of culture, a trove of irreplaceable treasures that embody our history, thought and sensibilities. But the art museum is also, increasingly in our contemporary times, an active supporter of cultural production and arbiter of contemporary taste.

Bartels and Rennie are not vying merely over whether one spectacular jewel is better than a string of smaller gems. At the root is a question about how aggressively to move toward the inevitable future of more democratized, accessible, participatory culture, a future that will be full of unanticipated consequences for art museums and art collectors.

A slightly differently titled and edited version of this article has been cross posted to View on Canadian Art. Thank you to Andrea Carson Barker.


Buzz Hargrove or Lee Iococca: the search for business models in the arts.

Creative Enterprise book cover
ISBN-13: 978-1441188205

For decades now, everyone from artists to arts organizations to public and private galleries and arts councils has been under pressure to operate in a more transparent, business-like fashion. When combined with artists parallel creative pushing at the limits of the institutional and discursive frameworks that hold art apart from (and above) audiences, it is hardly surprising if traditional ways of explaining or justifying the arts look less and less convincing.

Two new books step towards the idea that it may be fruitful to start looking at the arts through the same lens as we look at other things people do; cost vs. benefit, profit vs. loss, labour vs. management.
Martha Buskirk’s Creative Enterprise: Contemporary Art between Museum and Marketplace, is characterized as “[a] dryly skeptical account of the nuanced and complex relationships between artists, museums and the marketplace.” – interview with Martha Buskirk here:

Buskirk focuses on roles and methodologies, relationships and institutional frameworks, basically the infrastructure of the arts,  attempting to identify the models that are at work. Among her observations:

  • It is  increasingly difficult to distinguish between art and other forms of commerce or production: Alan Kaprow called himself a “service provider,” a labourer in other words.
  • Artworks today are often iterative, meaning the artist changes them as they move to new venues. It is not a matter of a discrete object being produced in the studio and then sent out for display. It is more like how the marketplace works for other types of products, where design, packaging and promotion  evolve in response to demand. Creating and presenting artwork has always involved “management” – by the artist and by curators and dealers – but today that management is increasingly like management anywhere in the marketplace.
  • The visual art market, particularly since the bubble of the first decade of this century, has been increasingly revealed to be driven by the same things that drive business: profits and tax breaks. The language is shocking, but so is the idea that there might be pretty straight forward business model at work.
  • Artists today are more frequently invited to work in situ, to work withing a gallery context or other setting. They are increasingly seen as people who can be brought in to “fix” any range of institutional or corporate ills, from public profile or office culture. operate like management consultants, except they are paid far less.
  • Institutional critique has become popular even among public galleries, because it is popular with the public who like to see the inner workings of the musuem. The avant garde that once was tied to the ruling elite with a rope of gold (Greenberg) is effectively taking down the velvet
  • The explosion in collections, museums, galleries, no less than the number of art schools and art school  graduates add diversity of points of view and practices that will inevitably change the character of the field.
  • Artists like Murakami are brands, managing processes that have all the attributes of the industrial assembly line. The results are both hi art and low or no art. The gift shop item no less than the one off monumental sculpture being part of a conceptual project that challenges both the meaning of ownership and the value of the art object.


Claire Bishop's Artificial Hells book cover
ISBN-13: 978-1844676903

The second book, Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells, further stirs the pot by examining the political effectiveness of social or “relational” art practices, provoking a similar kind of questioning of what models exactly are at work.

She looks at “the tensions between quality and equality, singular and collective authorship, and the ongoing struggle to find artistic equivalents for political positions.”

Bishop takes art practices that seek validity outside of the proper institutions and discourse of art at their word, as if to say, if your  first commitment is to social change, then put up or shut up. Don’t dress up like Buzz Hargrove if all you’re doing in the end is reinforcing the investments of Lee Iococca’s shareholders.

It’s a fair point – how can one champion the working stiff while also protecting the shareholders’ exclusive interest? – but only to the extent that the art falls so strictly along ideological lines, which most art, and most art institutions for that matter, do not.

While we may expect debate to rage now about what exactly Bishop is “for” or “against,” or thinks “better” or “worse,” and whether all that is still rooted in the same modernist cricial traditions it will be more interesting to consider what it means for  a critic of Bishop’s stature to be digging down to look at the foundations of current art practices, or what fresh hell she may excavate.

Bishop has provided an important spur to critical debate, which pretty well everyone has been saying for over a decade has become moribund: “boosterism is the only form of dialogue and lack of hype around an artist suffices for criticism.” Buskirk has similarly expanded the way in which we can speak about and analyze the infrastructure that validates and promotes certain practices and certain artists over others.

Whether looking at art or its context, the search for internal validation for art now seems not so much frustrating, even Quixotic, so much as misdirected. Validation occurs in art, just as in other kinds of human activity, in relatively predictable, but more importantly, knowable, describable ways.


This article was first posted on View on Canadian Art. (Thanks to Andrea Carson.)