November 08, 2010

A stolen painting shines a flashlight on the “public” domain of art

Did you hear about the museum in Sweden that didn’t realize three of its paintings were missing…until they were found by police raiding an apartment? Thank goodness for those “Malmo Art Museum” labels on the back of the canvasses. The story should remind us not to get too self-righteous about museums selling art to private collections, where (heaven forbid) they might not be available for public viewing.

Apparently the Malmo Art Museum in Sweden was unaware that a $1.5 million work by Edvard Munch and two other paintings in its collection had been stolen, until police discovered them in a raid. It’s a cringe-laugh-cry tale for anyone who cares about art and museums, with the laughter permissible only because it has a happy ending.

(By the way, the stolen Munch was "Two Friends," which I couldn't find an image of, not "The Scream." But the latter seems apt.)

For me, the story also shines light on the current debates about deaccessioning. (For those of you outside the visual art orbit, that’s the process by which museums sell, trade, or otherwise get rid of objects in their collections.) The furor over museums and universities like the National Academy Museum, Brandeis's Rose Art Museum, and Fisk University (pictured) trying to sell artworks from their collections to put themselves on a firmer financial footing — and the hawkish response from professional and accrediting bodies like AAM and AAMD — is understandable. But it hinges on several arguments about the harm that such sales would do to those institutions’ credibility and to the “public trust.” And the story of Malmo’s Munch suggests that one of those arguments doesn’t (pardon the pun) hold up.

I’m talking about the argument that museum ownership keeps art in the public domain: that museum art is everyone’s to see and enjoy. This argument is made loudest when a museum plans to sell works at auction, where private collectors make up the majority of bidders. The objection is that transferring an artwork out of a museum means that the public will no longer get to see and benefit from it. It’ll disappear into the lair of some hedge-fund manager or media figure, never to emerge.

But how public, really, is most art in museum collections, if the vast majority of it isn’t on display at any given time and much of it never will be? Interestingly, even the average art museum visitor is aware that what’s in the galleries is the tip of the iceberg. Get people from outside the museum profession talking about art museums (as we do frequently in interviews and focus groups) and it’s not long before you’ll hear about the treasure-filled “basement” or “backstage” where all those other artworks are stored. Their eyes light up when they talk about it; they would love to wander through that Citizen Kane-like trove.

Yet they know they aren’t likely to get an invitation, unless they happen to be, say, a hedge fund manager or a media figure who can make a big donation. The majority of the collection is closed off to them, a distant idea of abundance and creativity.

Which is as it must be, from any practical perspective. It’s just that “public” and “private” are slipperier concepts than we sometimes admit. Access and utility aren’t always tied to museum ownership of art, and private ownership can, in the right hands, be a public service. (Think how many private collections are loaned or given to museums, or become the basis for new museums.)

The mismanagement of the Malmo collection is obviously an extreme case, but it should remind us to have a sense of (wry) humor and rein us in a little when we start to crow about the manifest destiny of museums to own artworks. The system isn’t perfect even when it’s working altogether professionally. Some museumgoers already suspected that major art museums literally have more art than they know what to do with, and this story won’t help. Art museums need to show their publics why those vast collections are important and how they function — in other words, to bring visitors into the vaults, at least metaphorically, and make them stakeholders in the work of the museum.

Meanwhile, it wouldn’t hurt to have a real conversation — free of high-flown rhetoric and pat assumptions — about whether and in what senses art museums are public, private, or something else. Legally speaking, most of them are private nonprofit corporations, controlled by trustees who can do more or less what they like. But as nonprofits, they’re meant to serve charitable and/or educational purposes, and they’re answerable to state authorities in a way that private corporations aren’t. So what do the labels mean? Whose sense of ownership counts, and what should it look like? Where,  exactly, does art want to be?

Your thoughts? The conversation can start right here. 

Amy Barr — November 11, 2010

Having worked and interned in a handful of museums, it is unfortunately easy to see how objects that have gone missing can remain undetected. Museum workers not noticing right away that an object has been removed from a collection speaks volumes about poor, often times outdated security measures and underpaid security staff. After the object has initially gone missing, for museum workers to remain unaware that an object is not in one of many storage areas is not surprising in the slightest. There are any number of reasons to blame for this second, less surprising oversight: not enough funding for better facilities/systems, not enough staff, too many objects to properly care for, too many people accessing the collections and not properly managing object tracking, etc. Sadly, these problems are systemic in most museums, and most museum workers try to do the best with what they’re given. Obviously, I am sympathetic.

When talking about bringing audiences literally behind the scenes into museum collections, we need to balance the real world of collection storage (the often times poor facilities in various states of disrepair) with the unrealistic expectations many have of perfectly organized and managed troves of pristine art. Many behind-the-scenes events that museums hold still only showcase the tip of the iceberg – audiences still get a prepared demonstration of the top notch show ponies, they rarely see the inevitable collection of poorly preserved, or not-yet-accessioned and organized items. What kind of reactions would seeing these evoke? How would audience members react if their expectations did not live up to reality? Would they be outraged that museums are not doing a better job as stewards of the public trust, or would they perhaps feel moved to pitch in (with time, money, participation)? I hope the latter would happen, but I suspect the former would.

Peter, it’s apropos that you chose Munch’s “The Scream” for your image, as that high profile piece has been stolen a couple of times, once in 1994 from Norway’s National Gallery; in its place a note was left that read “Thanks for the poor security.”

Corina M. Paraschiv — November 23, 2010

I had an incredible opportunity when a friend of mine who is a chemist in art-restoration took me and a couple of friends behind the scenes of the Tate Modern to see the restoration of some works of art and I was AMAZED -- there was a Turner being worked on, something to do with the varnish and mass spectroscopy.

I think it started to make more sense to me why it's so expensive to run a museum. I discovered this entire world that existed BEHIND just that collection of paintings I could see as a visitor in the gallery.

Of course we can't have hordes of people going through, like you say Amy. But there certainly was value in seeing some of this first-hand or even just reading about it afterwards. Now when I go into a museum I am tempted to contribute even when it's a free entrance because I realize just how much work it is to have this open up so I can go see it. :)

Janis — November 30, 2010

I don't mind if museums have more stuff than they have room. A lot of times, they will trade things with other museums for objects that are more topical for them. Thus, one museum becomes known as a haven for Munch stuff, while the other one has lots of old Egyptian things ... and when the second one finds an old Munch thing in its safe someplace, they can trade it for a cool Egyptian geegaw.

Rob — March 30, 2012

While most of us consider ourselves to be good and just when considering the values and wishes of those around us, it becomes glaringly apparent that to honor every thought and wish is impossible. Hence the public domain situation. "Open to the public" takes on a whole mew meaning. It is clear that most of the public values or at least recognizes art as in some way having an effect of pleasure, profit, expression of values, e.g. for education or dissent. Would there be outrage if the Mona Lisa was left on the sidewalk on display for the public to "experience"? By some yes, and by some no. Is it reasonable for a person or entity to display this object in the public domain to incur costs or hardship? If art has no value then leave it on the sidewalk and watch what occurs. Art has become society's right because it is valued -- by those that wish to educate, by those that wish to empower, by those that wish to dissent as well as profit. The underlying lack of respect that the digital age has brought to what we see will not diminish the value of art or imagery. But it may only keep alive the confusing copyright conundrum of "is it mine, or is it not?"

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.