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Can Museums Survive Without Modern Art?

Modern and contemporary art is dominating the market. Not just for collectors and galleries, but also for museums, potentially to the detriment of non-modern museum’s revenue and donation potential. Just this spring, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York cut staff by as much as 17%, and put construction plans on hold, due to ballooning deficits, at the exact same time the Museum of Modern Art announced that David Geffen has donated $100 million towards expansion and renovation.


“The audience for contemporary art has grown exponentially in the last decade,” said Tom Eccles, the executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard, adding that the sector’s attendant money and glamour make it “a honey pot” and “the Hollywood” of the art world.


And while this trend is readily apparent in auction houses, galleries, and patrons of the arts as well, museums that do not cater to contemporary art’s popularity are suffering. The Met has a reputation for being weak in the areas of modern and contemporary arts, at one point Holland Cotter, a New York Times art critic, even called The Met’s collection of modern art an “institutional embarrassment.” This is particularly rough for a museum who has an encyclopedic mandate to showcase all manner of art in history, but grew out of the former director Philippe de Montebello’s hesitation to “follow trends”.


On the other side of the coin you have the MoMa expanding and renovating, the Whitney in New York  opened a new location to accolades, the new Broad museum in Los Angeles has had lines out the front door since opening in Fall of 2015, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art just opened a brand new building, as did the Tate Modern in London. From the Centre Pompidou’s success, to the satellite Guggenheim museums opening all over the world, there is clearly no shortage of donors keeping modern art alive.


The New York Times quotes: “Modern and contemporary art dominate the action these days—in auction houses and galleries, as well as museums. Everyone wants in, including a revered institution like the Met, which is striving to play catch-up even as it is struggling to pay the bills.”


In this article from Inside Philanthropy on this phenomena even inspiring college alumni to donate towards modern art curators for their colleges, they quote: “Throughout the philanthropic arts space, we’re seeing a dissolution of barriers between visual arts and things like social and political activism. We’re in the “artist as activist” age, and it’s here to stay, like or or not. The open question moving forward is if organizations, universities, and donors will respond in kind, in terms of integrating this art into curricula, hanging it on gallery walls, and re-imagining the role of the contemporary curator.”
The question becomes, can museums worldwide allocate the resources to grow a contemporary art collection? Can they do it in time to compete with the world-famous museums already in the modern sphere? Can they do it before declining ticket sales and declining donor contributions catch up with them? I believe, with smart planning and curation, they can.