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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Boston [Hearts] Las Vegas

I don’t love Las Vegas. I hate it actually. I find myself having to go every few years for work, and I don’t look forward to the trip anymore. But Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts doesn’t seem to feel the same way.

Tyler Green takes the MFA and its director, Malcolm Rogers, to task in a Boston Globe op-ed piece this week for sending another selection of paintings from its collection to Sin City. While I find myself agreeing with my friend’s opinions most of the time, on this issue I don’t.

Green seems to think that this heralds a new approach to museum management, dangerously shifting the paradigm of what a nonprofit art museum should do. I’m not so sure I agree. As I see it, the MFA has just taken to the next level what every other major museum is already doing—curating traveling exhibitions and partnering with for-profit entities to earn income from its assets. And I’m not convinced that, in theory, that’s necessarily a bad thing.

While most don’t admit it, museums often hope to make a profit from the exhibition fees they charge other institutions for hosting the shows they organize. Additional revenue is generated by the gift shop sales that accompany these shows. The book publishers, post card printers, note card producers, umbrella manufacturers, etc. who create the schwag that gets sold are always for-profit partners who make money by establishing a revenue-sharing arrangement of some sort with the museum.

This model is, essentially, what we have with the latest MFA show in Las Vegas. In this case, though, the for-profit entity has taken a more active role in bringing the traveling exhibition to the public—by providing the exhibition space and managing the show. But that’s nothing new or nefarious either. A couple of the best, most scholarly, single-artist shows I have seen in the last few years have been produced and exhibited by commercial galleries. Rothko at PaceWildenstein and Gorky at Gagosian come immediately to mind. Both these shows included works lent by nonprofit, museum collections. And, I daresay, their inclusion was justified by the quality of and insight provided by the exhibitions.

What Green, and many others, seem to forget is that it take cash (and a whole lot of it) to run an art museum. Just because an institution has nonprofit status doesn’t mean that it can’t or shouldn’t try to make money on certain endeavors. A museum director would be remiss if he or she didn’t maximize revenue-generating opportunities—as long as they are done in a manner that’s consistent with the organization’s mission. As a nonprofit, the organization is responsible for using the profits that it may make to subsidize its mission-driven operations and programs that do not earn enough income to cover their costs. I assume that is what profits from Las Vegas are being used for back home in Boston.

Rogers et al. at the MFA have broken new ground with these Vegas shows. The approach makes certain people uncomfortable and does set a precedent that sits close to the line of what constitutes ethical museum practice. I don’t think that the line has been crossed by these two shows, though. But because the line is being approached it is worth keeping an eye on future partnerships that the MFA develops. I know I’ll be doing that. And I’m sure Tyler will too.

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