Friday, May 28, 2010

Museum cuts and directors’ salaries – are they related?

An article this week in the Chicago Tribune reported that the Art Institute of Chicago has laid off 65 staff, on top of the 22 it laid off last June. The director James Cuno, one of the giants of the US art scene, has cited the almost 25% cut in endowment income as the cause of such, putting the Art Institute in the same group as the mega rich Getty Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art, both of which have laid off staff and cut programs in the last year.

It illustrates the very different form of funding that the US museum/gallery scene lives off, when compared to the UK and Australian situation. Endowments resulting from philanthropic giving have long been the main stay of US museum funding, a model eyed with envy from elsewhere, where there is nothing like the level of philanthropic giving to the arts. But it has a downside, namely when those endowments are linked to the stockmarket and a little matter of a GFC comes barrelling into town.

Across the Atlantic the UK museum sector which relies predominately on public sector funding has fared better so far. They of course are wondering what now happens with the new coalition government in power, but the Conservatives went to the general election proclaiming in David Cameron’s words ‘ Our culture is second to none’. Nick Clegg ( now Deputy PM) had stronger words ‘ Arts funding is a duty not an option for any government’, and even the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne got in on the act speaking at the Tate last December, when he said ’The arts play a vital role in our communities, helping to bind people together and create real social value.’ Whilst it is clear there will be cuts to their funding of as much as 20% , as no part of the UK ‘s public sector will be able to avoid such if the UK £160 billion deficit is going to have any chance of being reduced, there are also ways in which this may be ameliorated. The National Lottery was set up to fund heritage, the arts, sport and charities, and although its funds have been siphoned off to all sorts of other causes given its phenomenal success, there are signs that the government will restore it to its original purpose. There is also talk of a Museums and Heritage Bill which would give national museums greater financial independence.

But there are swings and round abouts with such matters and the result of the massive endowments that US museum directors have to manage means they also (by UK and Australian standards) can earn massive salaries. James Cuno earned US$626,000 last year up 46% from the previous one, no doubt so he didn’t get left behind his colleagues, such as Boston Museum of Fine Arts director, Malcolm Rogers on $719,000 or the Met’s Phillipe de Montebello ( since retired) on $818,000. But they are eclipsed by the star of the show, Glenn Lowry, director of New York’s MOMA, who earned $1.32 million last year ( salary $956,000, ‘retention bonus’ $191,000, ‘performance bonus’ $200,000, pension $262,000 plus rent free condo benefit valued at $336,000) , and this included a voluntary pay cut due to the recession taking his earnings down from, wait for it, $1.95 million the previous year.

So it’s not entirely surprising, returning to the Chicago Art Institute, that a blog comment on the article reads "When the director is making over $700,000 a year, and accepts a pay raise when the rest of the staff goes for years without raises, and scores of employees are losing their jobs, the whole thing seems shameful and embarrassing".

Haven’t I heard that comment from the corporate world recently?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Olokun Head (and museum fakes)

The art world is full of fakes, some of which surprise us and are ‘discovered’ to be genuine. Perhaps the most difficult artist to authenticate is Salvador Dali, because it seems clear he himself was helping to create his own fakes. He is thought to have signed some 280,000 sheets of blank paper in his lifetime, and in fact signed his name so many times that it deteriorated to the extent that experts now have great difficult authenticating the real thing.

But fakes in the museum world are much less common (we think!). “Piltdown Man” is perhaps the most famous. Thought to be the fossilised fragments of a skull and jawbone of a previously unknown human when collected in a gravel pit in 1912 in Piltdown, Sussex, it was not until 1953 that it was exposed as a forgery, being the lower jawbone of an orang-utan deliberately combined with the skull of a modern human.

Piltdown is a classic example of academics desperate to find the missing link between apes and humans overcoming sheer common sense. The man now thought to have perpetrated the fraud was Charles Dawson, a local antiquarian collector. Checking his details in Wikipedia I was amazed to find he made an artform of such finds including such wonderfully named items as the Beauport Park Roman Statuette (a hybrid iron object), the Brighton ‘Toad in the hole’ (a toad entombed in a flint), the so called ‘Shadowy figures’ on the walls of Hastings Castle and the Bulverhythe Hammer. Tell me more, please!

On a more serious note the latest edition of the Art Newspaper ( ) carries an interesting account of the Olokun Head (“Is the Olokun Head the real thing?”). The life size Olokun head was found by a German anthropologist Leo Frobenius in 1910 near Ife, Nigeria. The bronze is believed to be the head of a king, made about 1400, but at the time of discovery was considered to be too great a masterpiece to have been created by African hands, a reflection of attitudes at the time. It was seized almost immediately by the British Colonial administration on the grounds it was sacred and eventually placed in the Ife Museum.

But in 1948 when it travelled to the British Museum it was declared to be a replica. Was it always a fake therefore, or was the original copied either by Frobenius before handing it over, or before it reached the Ife Museum, with the original sold to a European North American Collector?

However now that it is on show again (“The Kingdom of Ife” currently at the British Museum and due to travel to 4 museums in the US in 2011), there are questions being raised as to whether it is actually the original after all. The BM’s conservators are undertaking X-ray fluorescence and thermo luminescence testing and microscopic analysis to determine the precise metal content, the casting technique, and the form of tools used.

A copy or the real thing? Hopefully all will soon be revealed.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Cultural rights and the future of museum visiting

It is a given that almost all museums are seeking to broaden their audiences and increase their visitation numbers. Some are more successful at this than others, but the GFC cannot disguise the fact that worldwide in broad terms those numbers just aren’t improving, and indeed may be going backwards. And it is not just our sector of the arts. US statistics from the National Arts Index show that overall attendance at museums, galleries, orchestral, dance, opera and theatre performances declined across the board by about 10% over the last ten years. And a key cause of this can be laid at the door of arts funding which in the corresponding period has dropped in relative terms by c 25%.

So I read with great interest an article in the Spring 2010 Journal of the Royal Society of the Arts on what we might be able to do about this. I must admit to being a very inactive Fellow of the RSA, but a great (tacit) supporter of all it stands for and in particular its’ thought provoking Journal. This article is by Bill Ivey from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

Ivey’s basic premise is that the argument for public investment in culture is unable to compete with education, healthcare and the environment. The old arguments for the value of the arts to public policy have gone as far as they can, and culture is increasingly seen as something governments get around to funding with the money left over after everything important has been paid for.

We’ve seen this most starkly in Australia in WA where the state is riding its second mining boom, and yet the arts, having missed out on any benefit from the first, is now seeing funding cut back further.

So what does Ivey suggest we do about it? Firstly he suggests we start from the premise that artistic heritage and creative practice are at the heart of a wide range of human engagements that are critical to both happiness and the workings of democracy. And secondly we redefine our sector to encompass an arena of human activity that is just as important as healthcare and the environment, namely our 'expressive life'. This has both a past (our heritage) and a present (everything from ethnic and community traditions, and social dancing to amateur music making and arts education in and out of schools).

Expressive life is much harder to marginalize than the arts, as it engages so many components of our daily lives (and therefore our legislative and social framework). Ivey then comes up with an innovative and (I think) terrific concept of a Cultural Bill of Rights that can justify the pursuit of a vibrant expressive life as a democratic public good. It might read as follows:
1. The right to our heritage – the right to explore music, literature, drama, painting that define both our nation’s collective experience and our individual and community traditions.
2. The right to the prominent presence of artists in public life – through their art and incorporation of their artistic visions in democratic debate.
3. The right to an artistic life – to the knowledge and skills to play an instrument, draw, act, dance, compose, design.
4. The right to know and explore art of the highest quality and to the lasting truths embedded in those forms of expression that have survived through the centuries
5. The right to healthy arts enterprises that can take risks and invest in innovation while serving communities and the public interest.

Will it wash with funding bodies? Certainly it would be so energizing to see public debate around the issues, as the current picture is one of minimal debate, and increasing marginalisation in forward funding for our collecting institutions. That in turn is going to do nothing to increase visitation.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Telling stories by conservation

I have long been an advocate of the power of story telling in both justifying the process of conservation and also in achieving engagement with wider audiences. Conservation per se just to extend an artwork or object’s life in perpetuity may be ethically the right thing to do, but it is rarely going to grab the attention of funding bodies or the public.

Driven by the very real concerns of reducing support for conservation training (both the Textile Conservation Centre and the V&A/Royal College of Arts in the UK closed last year), the International Institute for Conservation ran another in its’ successful series of dialogues in January 2010 entitled ‘Conservation in Crisis – communicating the value of what we do’. This has just been posted on the IIC website. I must admit to some bias on the value of these dialogues as I am Vice President of IIC, and am strongly supportive of the Institute taking a more active advocacy role.

And what comes out clearly from the dialogue is that storytelling is a significant key to engaging a wider audience, and one that conservators continue to be poor at exploiting. Whilst a range of programs providing public access to conservation, including opening up labs to guided tours and having conservation treatments carried out in public galleries, have had some success, as soon as conservators commit themselves to paper, they become dead boring to anyone but other conservators (and let it be honestly said, often to them as well). And this is generally because they focus on the treatment rather than the story behind the object that is revealed.

There is a great example of this given by one of the dialogue participants about a cross that was conserved in Venice. The conservators involved when explaining their work talked at length about the details of the treatment undertaken, yet failed to mention that what was really interesting about the cross is that for two hundred years it was carried before condemned prisoners on their procession to the scaffold, i.e. it was one of the last things such people saw on earth.

I have just attended a meeting of the International Polar Heritage Committee in Punta Arenas, Chile, and one of the speakers was bewailing the focus on the Heroic era and the explorers of the early Twentieth Century, at the expense of the conservation of the heritage of the early nineteenth century whalers and sealers in Antarctica. The simple explanation is that the story telling around the explorers has been much more successfully told than that of the whalers and sealers, and as a result the funds have flowed for conservation work for the former. Admittedly it helps having some substantial huts and their 15,000 artifacts as compared to a few difficult to discern archaeological remains on which to hang them