It may be safe to say that the news of the closing of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis has brought the panic barometer up a notch in the museum world. While the Rose’s news is particularly shocking, parallel announcements are also dropping jaws: word came yesterday, for example, that the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City will eliminate the positions of Chief Curator, Director of Education, Director of Planning and Director of Operations, along with other staff. Other organizations have announced similar cuts. It is rare, at this point, to find a museum that has not, at the very least, taken preventive measures, such as imposing hiring freezes or budget reductions. These announcements foreshadow a troubling landscape for venerable museums that, we once thought, would be around us forever.
The ultimate sacrilege of de-accessioning is no less shocking than drastic board decisions that, in one sweeping stroke, can erase the labor of generations of collectors, curators and philanthropists. Are these decisions inevitable? Is there another way to save a museum, without dissolving its collection or its staff?
What doesn’t seem to be discussed much is role of the government. Today, Congress is voting on a plan approved by the House Appropriations Committee which includes $50 million in supplemental funds for the National Endowment for the Arts, along with other provisions that can benefit the arts. While this would be a helpful stimulus (if it gets approved), it is still a tiny sum of money. It barely represents a quarter of the Metropolitan Museum’s annual budget.
Shouldn’t culture deserve a bailout of the kind that banks and the auto industry have enjoyed? Art has never been a major priority of this country. But just how much is it worth it to us? What would happen if five months from now the list of threatened museums expanded to the highest tiers? Will we just watch all that art go away? If we were to play this scenario out to its ultimate conclusion, we may have to picture ourselves twenty years from now, staring at American Gothic somewhere in Shanghai, or Nighthawks at a museum in Dubai. Could that be the future?