Tuesday, September 02, 2008

"Has any museum or gallery ever been placed in such an appalling predicament?"

The Times Online: "Not only has John Leighton, director-general of the National Galleries of Scotland, got to find £50 million in only four months for Diana & Actaeon, one of Titian's masterpieces, but he has to find another £50 million in four years to buy its pendant, Diana & Callisto. If not, they and some 20 other pictures in the Duke of Sutherland's collection, undoubtedly the finest Old Masters in private hands, may be lost to Scotland."

Virtual Philosopher Nigel Warburton: "Should the State pay £100 million (which is a bargain by current market standards) to stop two great Titians being sold overseas? ... The paintings' removal will be a great loss for many. Yet £100 million is a large enough sum to save or at least substantially improve many lives if it were invested in health care or in good social housing, or to stimulate contemporary artists if it were used to found an arts centre. Great paintings have become so expensive to acquire that this question is coming up every few years: when resources are scarce, could we justify State expenditure at this sort of level on paintings?"

Ophelia Benson comments: "Another point is that it's not a choice between the Titians and the social goods - it's a choice between location of the Titians and the social goods - at least, it is if the Titians are destined for another museum or other public place. ... If the Titians will be sold to private collectors, that's the loss of a general public good, not just a UK or Scottish public good. If they will be sold to another museum, that just means it will be easier for some people to see them and more difficult for others; they'll be recirculated rather than removed" (my emphasis).

And Warburton agrees: "And even if the paintings go into a private collection, many private collectors are sufficiently philanthropic (or else recognise that public display in major collections increases the worth of the paintings) to lend them to national museums and travelling exhibitions. So even in a private collector's hands, they might be available to many people."

I think this latter point applies just as well to the various deacessioning controversies that have come up over the last few years. So, for example, to oppose the deal between Fisk University and Alice Walton's Crystal Bridges Museum on "anti-deaccessioning" grounds just means that you would prefer that Fisk suffer whatever consequences follow from its inability to consummate the proposed sale (elimination of various athletic programs, faculty layoffs, etc.) than that the works at issue be relocated
(and, in that case, for only half the time, and probably to a venue which would allow even more people to see them).