Runaway art prices a double-edged sword for museums

Art: Rising costs have made it difficult both to buy and to insure fine works of art, pricing many museums out of the market.

May 18, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Anyone involved with writing about museums comes to understand that there is an unwritten etiquette concerning the subject of art and money. Museum officials hate talking about works of art in terms of dollars and cents. The Baltimore Museum of Art, for example, won't even discuss how much it pays to insure its collection.

The source of this reluctance is twofold. One is what you might call the philistine argument: talk about money reduces art appreciation to sensationalism and the worship of filthy lucre.

The other reason is security. Artworks are valuable commodities, and museum officials believe that to emphasize this aspect encourages incidents of theft and vandalism.

These are both reasonable arguments and, given the wild inflation in art prices over the past two decades, unlikely to change anytime soon. Earlier this month, for example, a Post-Impressionist painting by Paul Cezanne sold for $60.5 million. That was the fourth-highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction (the highest was $82.5 million for Van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" in 1990).

But not talking about money also works to obscure the adverse impact astronomical art prices have on museums and on the public they serve.

First, runaway art prices have priced many museums out of the market. Very few can afford to acquire significant additions to their collections.

Even those that can, like the fabulously wealthy J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, have a hard time assembling a collection of masterpieces comparable to older institutions whose holdings were acquired earlier.

Another development is more subtle. In the last 10 years museums have experienced an astonishing increase in the number of visitors. The sharp rise in museum attendance is in marked contrast to the declines experienced by every other "high" culture institution -- theater, the symphony orchestra, dance -- except opera.

One of the ways museums have managed to beat the trend is by mounting "blockbuster" exhibitions of popular artists.

A big show of Monets or Matisses is guaranteed to sell tickets, and many museums try to put on at least one such crowd-pleaser every season (the Baltimore Museum of Art, for example, is planning a major Impressionist show later this year).

But mounting such shows depends on being able to obtain pictures on loan from other museums or from private collectors. In the past this was relatively easy. With the great run-up in art prices, however, just the cost of insuring paintings has become a formidable expense.

A private collector who owns a run-of-the-mill Cezanne, for example, sees that a nice Cezanne now brings $60 million. But no proud owner is likely to admit that his or her Cezanne is less nice than the one just sold at auction. Consequently, they are not going to let it off the wall insured for less than $60 million.

So while in the past an entire show might be valued at a couple hundred million for insurance purposes, today insurance premiums are calculated on evaluations of $1 billion or more. At those levels, it's too expensive to borrow paintings for the shows audiences most want to see.

One predictable result is that museums increasingly won't be able to afford such shows, which in turn means that they increasingly will have to rely on their permanent collections.

That's fine for the largest institutions, like New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which already have huge and varied permanent collections. But it will hurt smaller regional and local museums, which paradoxically have been responsible for most of the recent rise in attendance. They will have to find other ways to sustain their new audiences or risk losing them.

Finally, just maintaining a permanent collection will become more difficult as art prices continue to rise.

Every time a new record is set for an Old Master, Impressionist or Modern painting or sculpture, the value of all comparable works is affected. So museums will find themselves sitting on relatively stable collections whose insurance value -- and the premiums that must be paid on it -- inexorably rises.

Eventually this will squeeze money from the museum's other programs -- education, outreach, etc. -- to the point where institutions will have trouble doing little more than insuring their paintings and paying the light bill.

It's possible that we are witnessing a golden age of museums destined not to be repeated. All the more reason to enjoy the treasures that in recent years museums have been bringing to audiences in unprecedented numbers. It is an opportunity that may not last. --- END OF STORY --- END OF LEG 6

Pub Date: 5/18/99

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