The State of Dependence

A recently published article in ARTNews discussed how government cuts due to a shattered economy in Spain affected museum practice: “Some museums are having to deal with 70 percent cuts in their operating budgets”. The case of the Prado Museum in Madrid is proof that effective internal strategy and productive management help resist against negative externalities. What about the federal museum institutions and the possible shutdown of the U.S government next Tuesday?

Unless the Affordable Care Act supported by the Republicans is defunded and a consensus is reached with the Democrats concerning President Obama’s healthcare law, the American government is likely to experience a complete or partial shutdown by October 1. What does this mean for the museum community?

For Washington this means that activities in federal museums will be paused. Prestigious museums on the National Mall in DC such as the Hirshhorn Museum or the National Gallery of art might be forced to suspend their activities and temporarily close their doors. Not only will visitors be deprived of visiting these prestigious museums but museum staff across these institutions will suffer the most. Today’s article in TheArtNewspaper read:

The majority of the 6,300-person staff of the Smithsonian Institution would be affected by a shutdown, including curators, administrators and conservators, according to a spokeswoman. Only a small number of facilities staff—such as security guards and essential employees of the National Zoo, like vets—would remain at work.

The issue of whether the non-essential category of museum staff will be paid in the event of a temporary leave is in the hands of Congress (Ironically, Congress is considered “essential” and thus get paid during a shutdown!). Governments and politicians often tend to spice up matters and keep us people hanging in uncertainty. The situation will hopefully be resolved at the very last moment and museums won’t be forced to pause their activities.

However the following question torments me when I think of federal cultural institutions: Can the dependence of museum institutions on government be a threat to their very own existence?

In his 1942 article What is a Museum? published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the American Association of Museums, Theodore Low explicitly explains that museums are public institutions. This statement may sound normal and banal. Yet, this is because we sometimes take for granted its very meaning. People tend to overlook or forget that there was a time when museums were exclusive places, mostly considered private and targeting only a select group of people. Museums were not always considered public institutions. Theodore Low’s idea was progressive in the sense that he recognised that museums were public institutions serving the community, both “by virtue” and by the source of their finances. When you look at the history of museums you notice a pattern with regards to their evolution in many cases: the museum starts as a private museum, shifts to the semi-public and in some cases to the fully public museum.

Will the museum field witness a reverse process with time? In other words will funding gradually seesaw back to the semi-public and the private depending on the state of the government?



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