THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

 

The Museum Prism and Chasm

 

by Marjorie Schwarzer

 

Museums have persevered over the last century in their quest to accomplish something more than the mere storing of private collections. Yet today, museums of all disciplines and sizes are circling back to the era when they were beholden to the values of ultra-wealthy collectors.

A chasm exists between the collectors who control museums and the people who work in them. To understand it, we first need to review museums’ efforts during the 20th century to advance from private repositories into civic-minded institutions. Two 21st century economic trends threaten to undermine this progress.

Let’s first go back to 1907, the year Congress amended tariff laws and enabled tycoons like J.P. Morgan to import European art into the U.S. American captains of industry needed places to store and display their treasures—hence the founding of museums, often on public land. As the century unfolded, technological innovations, public education, and social and economic advances like the civil rights movement helped to democratize the museum, bringing more voices into the galleries and corridors of decision-making.

Politicians saw the potential of museums to serve as platforms for civic pride. Federal programs, such as the Works Progress Administration and the founding of the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, respectively, provided money for progressive programs. Tax incentives encouraged collectors to donate works to museums. By the late 1970s, art museums were no longer solely the purview of an elite class of collectors.

During the Reagan years, two formidable waves with the potential to erode prior progress began to form. The first was economic inequality; the second was a changing art market. The museum field, so committed to its public face and progressive ideals, was willing to ignore these trends, or at least ride them out, rather than confront them.

While researching my 2006 book, Riches, Rivals and Radicals: 100 Years of Museums in America, I theorized that American museums, looked at as a whole, could be seen as prisms of American democracy, reflecting our struggles and triumphs as a people and a nation.1 If one compares the experience of visiting a museum today to that of a century ago, there is no doubt that museums have evolved into something more.

In 2008-09, the Great Recession hit. The two waves came crashing down on museums. Income distribution in our nation became dangerously lopsided over time. As beneficiaries of that wealth, mega-wealthy collectors began to re-exert their command over public institutions. As of 2013, the annual income of the top one percent of Americans was roughly 25 times higher than that of the bottom 99 percent.

 

Digging into the 2014 tax forms of 25 top-tier art museums…the median salary of their directors was $650,000, with the Museum of Modern Art’s head’s salary and benefits package at $2.1 million.

 

Despite their rhetoric of serving the public good, most art museums’ payrolls mirror this pattern. Charity Navigator tracks the finances of more than 4,000 nonprofit organizations. Analysts found that the median annual salary of CEOs of arts and cultural nonprofits in 2014 was $150,000, while executives of large nonprofits earned a median salary of $256,000.

The case is much different in major art museums. Digging into the 2014 tax forms of 25 top-tier art museums across the United States, I found the median salary of their directors was $650,000, with the Museum of Modern Art’s head’s salary and benefits package at $2.1 million. This puts art museum directors at the very top of all nonprofit executives.

My cross-comparison of CEO salaries with those for entry-level professional staff at the same institutions on the crowd-sourced website, Glassdoor.com, showed an average starting salary for an assistant curator of $50,000. That amounts to about seven cents for every dollar earned by the same museum’s CEO. In high cost-of-living areas like New York City, that figure drops to five cents.

Why do governing boards of art museums approve such out-of-kilter salary disparities? The answer is complex, but I believe it relates to the contemporary art market and its culture of excess and celebrity.

The Return of Art Insanity

The Great Recession saw a boom in biennials and art fairs. They put the art market into overdrive, catering to status-seeking billionaires and A-list artists. When interest rates are low and the stock market uncertain, the ultra-wealthy park their excess assets in what the IRS calls “treasure assets,” which are luxury items like gemstones, antiques and artwork. Since 2007, the wealthy have purchased more art than ever.2

During the 2008–09 recession, as endowments deflated and museums laid off staff, art sales shattered records. Prices rose dramatically. Contemporary art museums were priced out of the market. The question than became: How could privately-held art find its way into the public museum?

In 2006, after years of chipping away at incentives for collectors to donate art to museums, Congress eliminated the “fractional art gift,” one of the last loopholes that helped museums curry favor with collectors.3 Absent favorable tax deduction mechanisms, the new class of collector bypassed public institutions.

Rather than collaborate with existing museums, with their pre-existing missions and bureaucratic staff structures, some prominent collectors decided to go it alone. Witness legendary homebuilder Eli Broad, hedge fund billionaire Mitchell Rales and Walmart heiress Alice Walton. To show off their personal art collections, each built a “vanity” museum: The Broad in downtown Los Angeles (2015), Rales’ Glenstone in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. (2006) and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas (2011).

 

During the 2008–09 recession, as endowments deflated and museums laid off staff, art sales

shattered records. Prices rose dramatically.

Contemporary art museums were priced out of
the market.

 

To each founder’s credit, their museums employ professional staff, admit visitors free of charge and offer educational programs. The art is well cared for and beautifully displayed. Yet who is setting the agenda? Do professional staff have license to advance the field’s progressive values? Or are they beholden to their founder’s personal narratives?

Falling into the Gap

What if a city rebuffs a mega-collector’s desire to build a vanity museum? This happened in San Francisco, adding a twist to the intersection between private wealth and art collecting.

In 2016, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) tripled its gallery space with a successful downtown expansion. The top three floors are now known as the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection Galleries in honor of The Gap store founders.

The cloud hanging over the project is a string-attached agreement that is reshaping the museum’s curatorial program and policies. Seven years earlier, the city rebuffed Doris and Donald Fisher’s plans to build a private museum on public land for their collection.4 To keep the extraordinary collection from leaving the city or going to auction, SFMOMA came to the rescue.

 

Long is the list of urgent social and environmental issues discussed in museum conferences and publications such as decolonizing the museum, diversifying the workforce, and fighting for
pay equity.

 

But there was a catch. The family’s foundation added 1,100 artworks to the museum’s collection but did not relinquish ownership of the art. The complicated loan arrangement stipulates that, for the next 100 years, 60 percent of the art on display in the formal indoor galleries must, at all times, come from the Fisher hoard, a collection largely consisting of work by A-list white male artists.5

“Welcome to the winner-take-all art history,” wrote critic Jason Farago, after he viewed the opening installation.6 The Fisher loan agreement is difficult to parse. As SFMOMA explained it to me in personal correspondence, 35 percent of the museum’s current art display spaces must be at least 75 percent Fisher. If the museum expands again, the Fisher allocation percentage will go down. But this doesn’t change another stipulation of the loan agreement: every ten years, the museum must mount a year-long exhibition in the Fisher Galleries featuring all Fisher art.

Going forward, art historian Kellie Jones reminds us, “Art allows us to dream, to think, to imagine something different,” to visualize a way to change the world.7 The museum workforce increasingly echoes this humanistic vision of changing the world. The theme of the 2017 American Alliance of Museums’ conference—“Gateways for Understanding: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion in Museums”—is evidence of our field’s progressive ethos and aspirations toward using museums to advance social justice values.

Long is the list of urgent social and environmental issues discussed in museum conferences and publications such as decolonizing the museum, diversifying the workforce, and fighting for pay equity. But are dreams and talk enough to move us forward?

 

Why does our society, and particularly the
elite portions of it, prioritize things and status
over the social good? Are museum workers complicit in letting the system get away with
this disparity of values?

 

The Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) advocates for the rights of Walmart retail workers. In 2015, its union organizers visited the company’s headquarters in Bentonville to press for living wages. While there, they visited Crystal Bridges and recorded their visit on their phones.

“So how do you feel being here?” asks one organizer to a longtime Walmart worker, Zahia, as they stroll through Crystal Bridges’ gardens. Zahia doesn’t know that the museum paid its founding director a salary of over $700,000. She also doesn’t know that the museums’ security guard’s hourly wage is fifty percent higher than her own wages.

Nonetheless, her gut tells her something is very wrong. “I have mixed feelings,” she begins in a measured tone. “I mean the potential for it (the museum) to be great is there, but I think they did the wrong thing.” Her voice then breaks. “All our hard work and the wages that we don’t earn goes to this building filled with these nice things that are only for a few people to see. If they did the right thing, it would have incredible potential to impact everybody.”

Fighting tears, Zahia continues, “This art is nice. But it only reflects a small part of what we as Americans stand for and who we are. We are something so much more than this.”8

Museum workers need to ask why our field’s economic equation leans more to “nice things” than to people. How can museums justify the costs of building and maintaining pristine environments for art purchased by billionaires over paying fair wages to their own workforce? Why does our society, and particularly the elite portions of it, prioritize things and status over the social good? Are museum workers complicit in letting the system get away with this disparity of values?

Museum workers have always struggled to balance our institutions’ economic underpinning with our professed humanistic values. We have much to learn from union organizers, economists, attorneys and others who stand up to large systems, expose their biases and fight for change.

The ride across the current waves will be rough. But the quest is worthy. When we look back on history, how do we want America’s museums to reflect our nation back to us: as a prism or as a chasm? And who do we want to answer that question: the top point one percent or the rest of us?

 

Marjorie Schwarzer teaches museum studies at the University of San Francisco and is the author of the award-winning book, Riches, Rivals and Radicals: 100 Years of Museums in America. A revised third edition will be released in 2020.

 

  1. Schwarzer, Marjorie, Riches, Rivals and Radicals: 100 Years of Museums in America, (Washington D.C : AAM Press, 2006)
  2. Tyrrell, Katherine, “Why do wealthy people invest in art?”, Making a Mark (blog), June 16, 2012. http://makingamark.blogspot.com/ 201/06/why-do-wealthy-people-invest-in-art.html
  3. Zaretsky, Donn, “The End of Fractional Gifts?” The Art Law Blog, September 6, 2006, http://theartlawblog.blogspot.com/2006/09/end-of-fractional-gift.html
  4. King, John, “Fishers give up on plan for Presidio art museum,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 2, 2009, http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Fishers-give-up-on-plan-for-Presidio-art-museum-3225626.php
  5. Desmarais, Charles, “Unraveling SFMOMA’s deal for the Fisher collection,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 20, 2016, http://www.sfchronicle.com/art/article/Unraveling-SFMOMA-s-deal-for-the-Fisher-9175280.php
  6. Farago, Jason, “SFMOMA review: it’s art history on steroids but must go beyond big names,” The Guardian, April 29, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/apr/29/sf-moma-review-warhol-fishers-collection-ellsworth-kelly
  7. Evans, Dayna, “How to Work in the Art World Without Selling Out Your Politics,” New York Magazine, October 24, 2016.
  8. Dehlendorf, Andrea, co-director, Organization United for Respect, personal interview 15, November, 2016.

 

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