Time to break the taboo about financing US culture

Pour nos amis anglophones, un article publié précédemment sur le site Culture virale (http://culturevirale.free.fr), qui prend une nouvelle actualité avec la crise économique.

Certain observers of American museums (see for instance A. Ellis, The Art Newspaper, March 2004) have made the recommendation that American museums, based on their current financial situations, loosen rules on deaccessioning (a concept foreign to European cultural organisations; in France, for example, a museum’s ownership of the works of art in its collections is inalienable and indefeasible; museums are not allowed to sell or to give away a work, nor to let it be taken away.)  But doesn’t this suggestion open a Pandora’s Box, giving way to a series of potentially major consequences that are difficult to foresee?

Inarguably, it is necessary to think creatively about ways of diversifying museums’ income. Their expenses are increasing, while sources of revenue – earned income, public funding and private donations – remain stable or decrease. However, doesn’t Mr. Ellis’ proposal reinforce the temptation faced by museum trustees to find a new source of revenue by selling a part, albeit tiny, of the collections that their institutions hold in public trust? Above all, does this focus on deaccessioning not neglect the consideration of other solutions that might be equally worth exploring?

Drapeau US

We could, for example, think about increasing public funding, not only from the federal government, but also from local government, i.e. cities and states, which in the United States is currently very low compared to European standards.

Our point is not to discuss the respective merits of cultural industries, private philanthropy and the free market to optimize the creation, conservation and distribution of cultural goods. Let’s simply recall that in France there is such a thing as a “public service of culture,” embodied by the Ministry of Culture and by a strong commitment at the various levels of local government to improve access to cultural heritage and new artistic productions –  a purpose worthy of government intervention.

Europeans and Americans hold diverging views of what constitutes the general interest, a difference which has enormous implications for the public funding of culture. However, the American public should be aware that an example such as the size of California’s cultural budget, consisting of only a few million dollars, is viewed with disbelief by European politicians, civil servants and cultural leaders, considering that California is the seventh richest “state” in the world and a massive exporter of creative industries.

Europeans recognize and admire the excellence and prestige of American museums, so they are all the more sorry when they see American museums obliged to reduce their programmes and cut staff facing difficult economic climates. The objections raised by American professionals of culture can easily be foreseen: public funding of cultural activities seems to present dangers of censorship and increased bureaucracy.

These risks do exist, but public funding in the US is currently so low that it seems unlikely that they could pose a serious threat in the foreseeable future. On the contrary, would not such an influx of funding encourage risk-taking by artists and foster new artistic creation? After all, a significant number of American musicians, dancers, and artists in the visual and performing arts have found a temporary or permanent home in Europe in response to lack of adequate support in their own country.

As has frequently been demonstrated, Europe and the US undoubtedly have a lot to learn from each other. Now, with examples of deaccessioning on the rise, it may be time to question the taboo of public funding of the arts in the US and to explore new sources of funding by the government. In our view, this option would better preserve what ultimately justifies museums’ existence – the objects and works of art that they present to the public.


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