The Recession and US Museums
The impact of world recession on museums will be more subtle, but no less profound. The conspicuous consumption that has fuelled the art market is umbilically linked to the conspicuous philanthropy that has fuelled much of the growth in contemporary art museums throughout the US, the Middle East, South East Asia and Europe. These institutions have been significant beneficiaries of the growing and, to many, morally indefensible disparities of wealth throughout the world. It has left them heavily reliant on, and overly attuned and attentive to, a narrow constituency whose long-term appetite or capacity for support is highly questionable. The sector has come to rely disproportionately on the very wealthy, and on the role that museums can play as mechanisms for the translation of wealth into status, and status into power.
Most fundraisers in the arts freely acknowledge how much the pyramid of giving has narrowed in the past decade, with a greater reliance on an increasingly diminishing number of very wealthy donors. In Russia, India and the Middle East, the pyramid is practically a sheer-faced column—the museum sector is to a large extent the domain of the newly super-wealthy. The almost inevitably speculative nature of rapidly acquired wealth can lead to dramatic reversals of fortune, and thus of largesse. Interestingly, the success of President Obama’s electoral campaign in using web-based social networking to secure smaller donations is the talk of the charitable sector internationally. But art museums are not just short of the technological know-how to widen access to a donor base. They are also short of the arguments to galvanise them, as can be seen in the reaction of the US Congress to the provisions for the cultural sector in the Federal Bailout Bill. Museums have given a great deal of time and attention to stratification and hierarchy for the upper tiers of donors. With conspicuous consumption less in favour, speculative fortunes trimmed and priorities adjusted, the social class that art museums have smooched with most intimately is also the group most likely to sit out the next few dances.