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Will Brand at Art Fag City has responded to the idea that Occupy Museums is misguided. He focuses on another blogger’s take on the topic, rather than ours, but nonetheless I wanted to address one topic in particular. He writes:

For Occupy Museums to direct its criticism at state-funded, public-serving museums is in exact accordance with the methods of the Occupy movement as a whole: every official demand to emerge from the Demands Working Group has been directed at government institutions, rather than private industry.

But the problem is that museums in New York are hardly government institutions. Wouldn’t the Smithsonians in New York (there are two) be more suitable if that’s the goal? I think we overestimate how much government money museums receive. I know I used to think they received quite a bit but when you look at their tax filings you realize it’s a pathetically small.

For instance, the Frick Collection, according to its 990 form, receives $94,000 of its multi-million dollar budget from government grants. Here is MoMA’s piece and it’s even smaller, though PS1 appears to get a bigger chunk (about 20%) of its income from government grants. The New Museum received $194,000 in 2010, which is very small.

The other problem with going after institutions that do get greater government funding, usually smaller and with less powerful boards, is that hurling the “elitest” word around gives the opportunity for critics — usually far right Republicans, though not always — the opportunity to cut funding. It happened in the 1980s and 1990s and it could happen again. The little money the government does allocate to culture could, in this fiscally trying times, be pulled out from under us. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t continue to work at reforming the system, which obviously isn’t perfect, but I simply think targeting museums is the wrong choice.

What do we occupy to raise government funding for the arts?

NOTE: I’ve corrected the budget numbers as someone correctly pointed out that in the case of the New Museum, for instance, “… FY2010 expenditures: $11.1M. Which is not the same as ‘budget,’ which is a closely held, non-990 figure. 

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

12 replies on “The Myth of Government Funding for New York Museums”

  1. You’re right that [paraphrasing] museums get shit-all money in direct subsidies from the government. You’re ignoring, though, that museums are also tax-exempt specifically because they’re seen to be acting in the public good. That exemption alone is 30-35% that would otherwise be taken out of their income, and untold amounts in tax breaks for donors and board members. 

    I’m just putting this out there: we could have museums that are entirely state-funded, with an official watchdog group to investigate conflict of interest allegations. That could happen. That’s entirely possible. We wouldn’t have to worry about how many De Koonings are in the collection of the board that decided to hold an enormous De Kooning retrospective, or anything like that, ever again. It would cost an order of magnitude less than, say, the ~$1.3 billion we gave the Egyptian military last year. Shouldn’t we at least entertain that possibility? If we’re honestly talking about partial nationalization of health care to ensure a higher standard, what’s so crazy about bringing that to museums? Pointing out the problems with the present system is the first step.

      1. List of People Who Think I Should Run For Office:

        Hrag Vartanian

        I have absolutely no idea who is preaching this kind of message in government. I would seriously value a list of those people, and I would remember it come election time. 

  2. NYU’s “Fundraising for the Arts” class illustrates the grim reality of what museums actually receive from fed/state; precious little. It’s a pretty informative class for those who want the general overview. Museum fundraising is an around the clock job, mostly hustling after corporate sponsorship. 

    The Guggenheim just sealed a deal creating house paint with Sherwin-Williams. You will soon find signature colors inspired by the Guggenheim’s collection. On the one hand, pure genius from the development and marketing dept., and on the other hand ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME? This is the kind of creative bullshit that development departments dream up, they are *NOT* wasting their time on state funding. Which is why museums in the US have insane corporate logos, cars and all manor of product flooding the entrance ways – we can all thank government cuts for that. Museums have to survive and compete w/ all other forms of entertainment w/ out the help of the state to secure that our cultural heritage has a home for the public.

  3. One note: I think the word “museum” seems to be generating thoughts of museums such as MoMA and the Gugg which are juggernauts. Think of the smaller spots: places like the Queens Museum and the Bronx Museum and the hundreds of community museums that don’t have collections, but are investing in their community of artists. There are a lot of shades of grey here…

  4. Elite, eliter, “elitest”. The spelling error says it all. Riven by class anxiety, everyone tries to beat each other to being the least “elite” – which, apparently, is the worst possible insult in American culture – despite all of the best moments in that culture being produced by an elite (not economically elite, I mean, but by a subcultural group that certainly wasn’t the 99%, and therefore an elite, a group set apart, be that jazz, minimalist sculpture, or Whitesnake). 

    The idea that MoMA is, as previously stated on this site, “the plaything of the rich” is amazingly myopic and disheartening. Without private investment from the start, the collection wouldn’t exist, and young American artists would have to get their Picassos and Cezannes in black-and-white repros in catalogues. (Good luck inventing Ab Ex, dum-dums!) “Plaything” is a pretty facile way of summarising that (huge!) importance. I mention this to broaden the conversation a bit and to give the poor old billionaire trustees a break. Art museums – the “art world” in general, including art education – is so bound up with the IDEA of “eliteness” – be that economic, artistic, or whatever – that to protest the “elite” of the “art world” is to protest art itself. Not that I’m against the OWS protests – just that, in the realm of culture, certain forms of politics suddenly get muddied (for example: the questionable politics of ‘institutional critique’…remember that?). I personally would rather not have art “for” or “by” “the people” (ugh: as though artists, or the very rich, aren’t “people”). I’d rather have it made by the elite, displayed and explained by the elite, and paid for by the elite. Then shown to everyone for free.

    Here’s what you don’t do to raise government funding for the arts: you don’t change art. You don’t play down to a vaguely defined notion of “the people”. (How many working-class people are taking a couple of weeks off work to protest at Wall Street, or St Paul’s, by the way? Just out of interest?). You get real about what art and the art world is and has always been: something by, but not – if we’re lucky, and we really try – for, an elite. In a good way, we hope.


    1. Ben, I understand you being taken aback by my use of “plaything of the rich” for MoMA but I was trying to make it clear that it was not born a public institution the way others were. It was a critique at the time too, in some ways that’s what allows it to experiment and do radical things, no?

      I respect your opinion but I see the issue a little differently. I would like to maintain a standard but also expand the audience and appeal of art, while responding to new audiences. That’s a different type of experimentation and I personally like the energy from that more than an art by an elite for an elite.The case of Occupy Sotheby’s is about working class men, though that term “working class” isn’t really popular in the States, since everyone seems to think of themselves as middle class (but that’s another issue). And I think you’d be surprised how many people at OWS are working stiffs. The population that makes up OWS is more transient than you might think as not everyone is camping out everyday but they come and go depending on their time off, etc.

      Glad you chimed in.

  5. Thanks, Hrag. I’m in the business of expanding the audience for art professionally, so I too am totally invested in that as an idea. Generally speaking, we’re talking about taste (and we’ve disagreed about street art before, so let’s be nice and not go there…), and in fact a large swathe of art in, say, the Met (or, here, the National Gallery or British Museum) was co-opted by the intellectual elite from popular (ie, non “elite”) cultural experience. 

    Contemporary art as it’s understood today is generally less conceptually complex than the art of the past, while being much more niche in its appeal – and it makes damn sure that most people haven’t got a clue what it’s about or why they should bother with it (I wrote about this for Art21 a while back: And why should they?

    I know this seems like a digression from the main point. But actually it’s part of the same thing – who is representing who at a protest? Who is representing who in an art gallery? 

  6. This is an incredibly loaded conversation – not just because the types of museums all vary (jumping on Carolina’s comment) but all because some have a different relationship with public funding. The Cultural Institutions Group has a specific public/private relationship with New York City, technically publicly owned and privately operated. There are over 30 CIGs and they include  larger institutions like the Met and Museum of Natural History and smaller ones like Flushing Town Hall and Snug Harbor. While not as publicly entrenched and large as the Smithsonian network is, it’s the closest thing there is to government funded culture. This leads to various things. It leads to a city economy that’s fueled by tourists that come to visit these places, it leads to incredible education programs touching the city’s children every day in a world where arts education is constantly cut (not to mention to the senior and immigrant educational programming), close ties between many of these institutions and the communities they serve… and it leads culture that’s dependent on city budgets. These institutions, while government funded, have taken historical blows the last few years due shrinking budgets. Economy doing bad? These are the first to get cut, never mind they bring in incredible amounts of $ through tourism and provide education city youth wouldn’t get otherwise. Then come the layoffs, furloughs, shortened hours, closed galleries, discontinued programs, etc. Next is the scrambling for fundraising from foundations and corporations who… shocker… aren’t giving as much anymore! It’s a double edged sword. This whole discussion can go on and on… but it’s Friday night and I need to watch my DVRed episodes of Work of Art (by the way, Brooklyn Museum = CIG!). 

    1. also, just to be clear – CIGs aren’t ENTIRELY funded by the city, but big portions of their budgets come from city funding. 

  7. Point is… if they receive any form of funding from tax payers they should strive to establish visual dialogue involving as many viewpoints as possible. Not to mention that they should be more apt in discovering the art that speaks to our times rather than going by whatever is hot in the NY art mags — and that goes for museums nationwide.  At least that is my position. You know as well as I that many museums cling to one-sided politics when it comes to the type of exhibits that are put together. That should not be going on if tax payer dollars are being used to keep the doors open. If you are implying that they don’t need the money — fine… perhaps the money should be used to fund artists directly in some way.

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