Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Can museums compete?

Lee Rosenbaum had an op-ed in yesterday's Los Angeles Times arguing that "driven by the scarcity of great old works and an expanding class of wealthy buyers, the recent stratospheric rise of art prices has utterly outstripped most [museum] acquisitions budgets." Greg Allen and Tyler Green (1 and 2) take issue with her thesis. Lee responds here.

I'll stay out of the underlying debate, but I did want to mention two things that caught my eye in the back-and-forth. First, Lee's piece mentions the changes in the law governing fractional gifts to museums, a subject covered extensively here a year ago:

"Last year, tax deductions for 'fractional' donations were sharply restricted. Collectors used to be able to promise a work to a museum and take the tax benefit over time, sometimes over decades. Museums displayed the works occasionally, donors had them the rest of the time and the deductions appreciated as the work appreciated. The new restrictions 'effectively ended donations of fractional gifts to museums,' wrote Gail Andrews, president of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, in a recent letter to Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee. Andrews, director of the Birmingham Museum of Art, urgently requested changes in the law and described the plight of five unidentified institutions across the country that had lost donations. Jeremy Strick, director of Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art, acknowledged that MOCA was one of those institutions, and that a donor had withdrawn 40 promised works. Strick told me that about 30% of art donated to his museum had previously come as fractional gifts. The tax-law changes, he said, derailed negotiations with 'five to 10' potential donors."

Second, Greg makes an interesting point against the radical anti-deaccessionists (like Lee). Speaking of MoMA's acquisition of Pollock's iconic One: Number 31, 1950, he says:

"Ironically, even at that point, Rubin had to raise the money to buy One ... by selling two paintings by Mondrian .... I say ironic because the other of Rosenbaum's laments is that museums are 'selling to buy,' deaccessioning works in order to buy other works. Or to put it another way, had the Modern followed Rosenbaum's ideal policy in 1967, it wouldn't have made its landmark purchase of "One: Number 31, 1950" (1950) by Jackson Pollock. But hey, at least it'd have 45 Mondrians instead of the measly 43 it has now."