Identity Crisis

French and American Museums in the Market for a Miracle Cure

Caught between the French model’s publicly-funded resilience and the American model’s reliance on private donors, museums on both sides of the Atlantic are carefully considering their future in light of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis.
© John Holcroft

Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting of Lucrezia Borgia, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia’s illegitimate daughter, was the pride and joy of the Brooklyn Museum with its mysterious smile, slender form, and ambiguous eroticism. This masterpiece from the German Renaissance painter was auctioned off at Christie’s in October, and several other works by Corot, Courbet, and Francesco Botticini have also vanished from the picture rails. Five canvases by Monet, Matisse, Degas, and Dubuffet were sold at a second auction at Sotheby’s the same month. Starved of visitors during the pandemic and crushed under the weight of overhead costs, the New York museum was forced to give up some of its treasures. The institution’s curator, Anne Pasternak, is not the only one confronted with such a decision. As donor contributions have dropped sharply, no fewer than eight leading American museums have had to sell a selection of their works for an estimated total of more than 100 million dollars.

The U.S. cultural sector, often forgotten by the public authorities, has been hit hard by the pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, and has found itself in dire straits. Both large and small museums have stood empty and are now fighting to avoid closing permanently. The sale of certain works to pay their operating costs (a process known as deaccessioning) has long been a taboo subject. According to the Association of Art Museum Directors, this option should only be used to acquire new works, and never to monetize collections. However, the crisis has changed the rules. With ticket sales frozen and donations disappearing, these cultural spaces are threatened with extinction if their directors fail to find ways of financing curating costs and artwork maintenance.

© John Holcroft

The Resilience of French Museums

Supported by private investments, donors, and ticket sales, the American (and British) model initially appears more vulnerable than the French model. Adopted across Europe, this latter system relies on public money. The Louvre and the Centre Pompidou have been faced with a drop in visitor numbers, but are more equipped to weather the crisis thanks to state budgets. As a result, subsidized French museums reopened far sooner. And selling artwork was out of the question, as a law forbids them from “giving up” any part of public heritage.

So, is the French model superior? Not so fast! The current strength of these public museums is generally their weakness. With a paltry purchasing budget (Pompidou’s was capped at 2 million euros for 2018), they are managed extremely conservatively and focus on previously acquired collections instead of sourcing new artwork. American deaccessioning enables the opposite. Respecting their duty of passing down heritage, U.S. institutions can dynamically refresh their collections and find more contemporary pieces through the sale of minor works or already well-represented artists and movements.
In France, the limits of a strict ban on the sale of artwork are now coming to light. The Centre Pompidou opened in 1977, and while it boasts one of the world’s finest modern art collections, its contemporary art department is lacking. There are very few works by international abstract expressionists such as Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, or De Kooning. Far fewer than at MoMA or even the Broad Museum, a major private contemporary art museum in Los Angeles.

American Culture Fueled by Donors

It took two powerhouse patrons, Bernard Arnault with his Fondation Louis Vuitton and François Pinault with his Musée de la Bourse de Commerce (also focused on contemporary creation), to rejuvenate a country fascinated by its cultural past. The situation is incomparable in the United States, where figures from David Rockefeller to David Geffen have upheld a tradition of artistic patronage encouraged by exceptional tax advantages. This has led some to remark that, in the absence of a specific department at the federal level, cultural management is delegated to speculators, collectors, and donors who will probably step in and replenish the art market’s coffers post-pandemic.

In reality, the French and American systems are complementary. A cultural policy in which taste and financing decisions are the sole responsibility of the government leaves the door open to bureaucracy and paralysis. But being financed exclusively by private money and dependent on the generosity of donors, any acquisition and curatorial policy runs the risk of being overly contemporary and aging badly. Anne Pasternak has understood this dilemma. The nest egg accumulated through the sale of some twenty works will be used to create a fund of 40 million dollars, the revenue from which will enable the Brooklyn Museum to face the future with peace of mind. Meanwhile, the publicly-funded Centre Pompidou is now pulling out all the stops to grow its network of private benefactors…

Article published in the February 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.