The new sin tax: museum tschotchkes

TschotsckesMug.jpgMove over, cigarettes. The New York Times reports this morning that N.Y. State officials plan to offset government spending by levying a tax on museum gift shops. For years lawmakers have been asking why an Alessi corkscrew should be taxed in one kind of shop but not in another. Now it’s official: “An array of smaller tax law changes — requiring nonprofit organizations like museums and advocacy groups to collect sales taxes on T-shirts, mugs and other items — will bring in more modest amounts.” The same politicians who walked way from half a billion dollars in annual revenues from a Manhattan traffic congestion charge will combat future deficits with a tithe on postcards and mouse pads.

The call for ethical cleansing is ringing anew not just from Albany but also from the inner precincts of the art world. The always sharp Adrian Ellis has penned a pointedly polemical article in The Art Newspaper entitled “Museums should beware of being used as marketing tools.” Never one to mince words, he casts a stern gaze at museum acquisitions of contemporary art — around which he detects the odor of “insider trading” — and concludes that in some cases “museums serve as accomplices, albeit unwilling, to a sequence of events in which their standing is appropriated for private gain.” Read and discuss.

Meanwhile, downstairs in the gift shop, the new regulations may open the way for unexpected consequences. The chimera of educational (and therefore tax-exempt) intent having been dispelled, museums may start to stock their shelves with more nakedly profitable goods. (Sandro Chia’s excellent but hard-to-find Brunello di Montalcino could be a start.) The Times is already discussing museum souvenirs in one breath with tobacco and massage parlors. So what’s next — warning labels?

5 thoughts on “The new sin tax: museum tschotchkes”

  1. “But in so far as the museum authenticates and ratifies the collectors’ judgment, and the collector is ahead of the market in their acquisitions as a result of their board service, there is an outstanding and knotty issue in museum ethics.”

    So notes Ellis in the piece mentioned by Andras. That this is a “knotty issue”–the idea that “board service” gives one access to curators and acquisition committee meetings that are otherwise closed to outsiders–leads one to believe that museums would do their best to keep these conditions quiet. Not so at the Guggenheim, where membership in the Young Collectors Council (YCC) gives you access to “one seat on the Acquisitions Committee and the privilege of voting on acquisitions for the Guggenheim’s permanent collection.”

    It would seem that the Guggenheim, rather than shying away from it’s potential role as a broker of insider information, is trading on it as a means to develop its patron base. But, I should note, to the Guggenheim’s credit, that YCC membership will only cost you $1000, which is undoubtedly a fairly low barrier to entry. At that rate, can you afford not to become an insider?

  2. It seems we are examining two levels here, two different investigations of ethics in the non-profit cultural arena. That is, unless a member of the museum board would potentially also be allowed a discount in the gift shop, perhaps on that interesting bottle of Italian red suggested by Andras. Luxury canned goods might also look good on the shelves: artichoke hearts, pâté, caviar, perhaps something tasty from Piero Manzoni.

    I wonder how all this will play out in the Brooklyn Museum, currently awash in Murakami-ana, both in its Louis Vuitton luxury boutique and also a fourth floor gift shop crammed with Kaikai Kiki merchandise. Will the sales tax deter commerce? And is Murakami’s notorious conflation of art and commerce one possible cause of all this attention, in much the same way that Chris Ofili’s elephant dung once drew political flies to the Sensation show — also at the Brooklyn Museum, by the way.

    Politicians will often discover shocking laxity and the need for reform in the cultural sphere when all else is going to pot. With a recession in the wings, a state budget just signed (a week late, and typically making no one happy) and Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan in the garbage, it was high time for Albany to deal with the great moral lapse of allowing non-profits a sales tax exemption.

  3. Culture is increasingly becoming the luxury good we all feared it would, so an extra tax on your Van Gogh umbrella doesn’t seem too worrying, although museums have a hard enough time raising money and keeping afloat without this extra impediment.

    By the way, it’s not wholly surprising that London’s dreaded C-Charge is not being implemented in a nation where the car (rather than culture) is king, is it?

    On museums as marketing tools, we could all see how transparent the Gugg’s Harley Davidson show was, but this new trend for insider-trading on museum boards is obviously harder to spot. Of course, it’s easy to see when they’re not so subtle – witness Chris Ofili’s hasty departure from the Tate trustee board moments before it was announced that the museum had purchased his major installation ‘Upper Room’ for £705,000. No mean kick-back!

  4. Funny, I never even noticed I wasn’t taxed in the bookshop! But it does interest me considerably to watch the changing role of museum patronage in relation to the market. Museums are taking sales commissions themselves, and while the insider game has always been an issue, it has dramatically accelerated in response to the speed and mobility of the art market. Maybe taxing us in the shop is the state’s way of letting us know they know what’s up.

    Regarding the larger issues that Ellis raises, I see two of concern. The first is that collector-driven non-profits are setting new standards for how art business is to be done, and museums are pitching the sexiness of the endeavor. You, too, for only $1,000.00 can drive the discourse and set the standards for art exhibition!

    Rather dear to me is that the museum is a place where academic scholarship and the public overlap. So far, there is little to tell me that the new trends in arts patronage are favorable to independent academic scholarship. At the very least, a reason might be that such scholarship is just too slow for the market.

    The current hype around ‘”acquisitions” really downplays the value of such knowledge, and criteria for scholarship will change shape in such conditions. Is art history a marketable good? It has certainly been a profitable hook in contemporary artistic practice, but might the shape of it change as a discipline? Has it already? That’s my concern in the bookshop.

  5. CS raises an excellent point above, the one about speed. Scholarship takes a long time, and there have to be ways to support that scholarship. The academy and the museum have served as refuges for it.

    But there are good examples of high minded history and discourse that need neither: think Susan Jacoby, an independent historian of exceptional note (see her Freethinkers and Inside Soviet Schools; Robert Caro (biographies that offer a study of “power” to rival, if not to render silly, Foucault’s own); Manuel Delanda, former avant-garde filmmaker (but now, to my dismay, installed at Columbia’s Architecture School) who has penned some of the most interesting and original pieces of scholarship and theory in the past decade: War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (note: this is a pre-internet book), 10,000 Years of Non-Linear History and most recently A New Theory of Society. Other kinds of non-profits, think tanks and (yikes) the open market have made room for this kind or work.

    Granted none of these titles have anything to do with art or art history per se (my own tastes run towards other disciplines), but I think they stand as representative of directions that discourse can take when not burdened with carrying a torch for traditionally slow moving institutions (be they academic or museological).

    Don’t rule out the possibility that independent arts patronage might just be the ingredient that shakes up the future of scholarship, especially if that patronage gets behind smaller, more nimble organizations for whom scholarship and criticism form a central pillar of their mandate.

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