The museum institution in questions
2/22/11

The ‘commercial turn’ took place from the end of the 1980s. Under the pressure of neoliberal ideology and massive tax reductions, the share of the public authorities in the Gross Domestic Product shrank. ‘In terms of museums this relative contraction of public finances had as corollary a reduction of their public funding and the obligation to look for other sources,’ writes André Gob (p.43). Shops, cafeterias, business sponsoring and patronage became more important in funding the museum’s activities. Yet André Gob is not about to throw the baby with the bathwater: ‘the diversification of resources is an advantage for the museum which can thus, depending on circumstances and opportunities, balance its budget by compensating the reduction of one source by increases in others’ (p.43). And, he concludes, this turnaround has the benefit of forcing the institution to concern itself with questions of money which it has sometimes exaggeratedly effaced. But abrupt turnarounds in sponsoring policy occur frequently and business patronage is, André Gob reminds us, always interested. ‘In supporting museums the businesses are buying something; it’s an interested partnership. And the danger exists of seeing them dictating the discourses, far from the museum’s societal, academic and scientific missions.’ For André Gob, this new attention paid to the financial management of the institutions thus marks ‘a positive evolution (which) is not in contradiction with the museum institution and its sociocultural goals, provided that certain signposts are established and respected’ (p.50).

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But there you are: this last condition is in the process of shattering, and the museum’s ‘entrepreneurial mimesis’ is now taking on troubling proportions. André Gob illustrates this through two examples: the establishment of the Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi and the ‘Guggenheim model.’ Created in 1937 by the rich heir of a family of American industrialists the Guggenheim Foundation has the aim of managing its collection of contemporary art, with the project of founding a museum in New York, which opened in 1959. But Thomas Krens, the Foundation’s director from 1998 to 2008, launched a policy of ‘subsidiarisation,’ of international expansion, which would create a genuine art multinational. Guggenheim museums opened in Bilbao, Venice and Berlin. In this entrepreneurial mimesis ‘the collection becomes a profit making asset: the lucrative circulation of exhibitions within its own subsidiaries generates revenue for the Foundation’ (p.53). But, shows André Gob, if the risky operation carried out by the Basque government (the Bilbao Guggenheim cost 90 million Euros in initial investment and costs 24 million annually) proved very profitable for the region, endowed with a prestigious cultural institution which has attracted nine million visitors in ten years, the same is not the case for...the Guggenheim Foundation, now in great financial difficulty and obliged to lay off staff and sell artworks! ‘In the world of business, subsidiaries are created to channel profit to the parent company,’ André Gog reminds us. ‘Here it can be observed that the subsidiary becomes rich whilst the parent company becomes poor! This unexpected situation shows that the economic world’s modes of thinking and functioning cannot be transposed as they are to the domain of culture. And that is true because the museum’s goal is not to generate profit. The Bilbao Guggenheim benefits the town and the region but doesn’t generate money. On the contrary it costs a lot of it. And Krens forgot that that is the case for every museum!’

 

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