The Recession and US Museums
The brunt of the squeeze will be borne disproportionately by operating budgets (exhibition programmes, education programmes, conservation, research and curatorial functions). This is because, short of closure, the fixed costs associated with expanded infrastructure (new buildings, wings etc.) are just that—fixed. It is the need to balance the books from a higher baseline of fixed cost that is causing the pain. The drift is clear: we are entering a period when all but the most privileged and well-connected of art museums are going to come under very real financial constraints and many will be doing so with a weakened safety-net of well-disposed stakeholders. Outside of the restitution of art to Holocaust victims and the occasional censure of miscreants, museums have for the most part shown limited capacity for effective collective action. Industry-wide responses to problems (analogous to those for banks or the automotive industry) would require an appetite for solidarity that does not come naturally, even if the industry found a more willing ear in government.
Much of the reaction to these trying circumstances will therefore be confined to what individual museums, or small coalitions of museums, can do. Museums’ boards and directors are—quite reasonably, given their central mission of stewardship—highly conservative and, perhaps less reasonably, highly motivated by peer approval. Therefore, radical alternatives to genteel but irrevocable decline—such as merger, relocation, restructuring, resource sharing—are only likely to be contemplated as a last resort when an institution is faced with imminent closure. By that time, solutions are significantly more difficult to implement, as the time, money and organisational will required have been exhausted. As Hegel said, “the owl of Minerva flies at dusk”. It is interesting, if not entirely comfortable, to speculate on some of the fault lines that are likely to grow as the pressure caused by the triangulation of the dark forces of speculative expansion, recession and a diminished civic mandate increases.