Charity begins at home

It’s sad to see the ongoing bloodbath at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In all places and of all institutions, one would assume the redoubtable Met would be immune from the financial crises that seem now to be part and parcel of the running of any arts organization. While the Met has sought to engage a larger audience and broaden its constituency through capital expansion, new programs and electronic media, so far it hasn’t- as it hasn’t for anyone in the arts- made much difference.

It seems that in desperate times, all organizations seek some sort of messianic solution- a new, charismatic director is a popular one, someone who will develop a cult of personality allowing thereby a mesmerizing effect on visitors and donors alike, both actual and potential. One wonders, though, how well the likes of Thomas Hoving or Leonard Bernstein, those of sainted memory of 40 years ago, would fare today.

And, indeed, when one thinks of these charismatic characters at the top, what’s not apparent is the spiky relationship they maintained with the governance of the organizations they served. In developing their own cult of personality, they felt immune from the mundane necessity of things like working within a budget. And, of course, it is the failure of working within the vaunted budget and the eventual failure to meet its financial obligations that results in the ultimate failure of the institution.

It may seem insulting to the intelligence of my gentle readers to make such an obvious point, but it is astonishing to me the extent to which arts organizations fail to grasp this simplest of simple facts. Indeed, when times are tough, organizations often spend more money in an attempt to widen their audience and make a big splash, when they should be focusing on their core institution and, wait for it, spending less. How often I’ve seen the last big expenditure the payment of six figures to an offsite consultant who told the organization what they should have already known, and the payment to the consultant resulted, sad irony, in the last nail in the financial coffin.

It’s funny, not really, but ironically so, that along with today’s press about the vicissitudes of the Met, I also read in the art press about the pending opening of TEFAF Maastricht, arguably the world’s finest fine and decorative arts fair. My last visit to Maastricht brought me face to face with several curators from American museums, with an equal distribution from both coasts of the US. None of them were shopping with donors, but they were shopping, although at present I can’t confirm that any purchases were made onsite or subsequent to the closing of the fair. However, what I can say is that the curators got a free, expense paid trip to the Netherlands, with their doubtlessly cash strapped institutions footing the bill. Charity begins at home, it seems to me, and if one doesn’t have an abundance of the ready, one needs to stay at home.

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