Saturday, September 26, 2009

Expertise: a Non-Renewable Resource

Reading an excellent article by Joelle Seligson in the September-October issue of Museum, I found myself brought up short by a couple of quotes. No, it wasn’t another round in the “it’s all about Community” debate that we had a few weeks back. Seligson was describing the after-effects of the belt-tightening exercises that most museums have gone through in the last year. She made the point that it’s not a case of trimming fat; we were already pretty lean to start off with. Now we’re hacking away at the meat of our operations.

So what was it about this piece that raised my hackles (not difficult, as my regular reading knows)? Well, it was a couple of quotes from people who ought to know better. They were so jaw-dropped that I feel they deserve to be reproduced more or less in full.

First, Graham Beale, Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts: “What we did in this reduction was keep the profile of DIA as a major, universal, full-service museum. As far as the public is concerned, we look the same.” DIA implemented its reductions in ways “that came as a surprise to some people…. Areas that in the past have been held as absolutely sacrosanct and regarded as the core of the museum – that still are, really; the curators and conservators – they were affected in ways that the public, the visitors were not.”

I was just getting my brain around that statement when Seligson hit me with another killer quote. This one was from, Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the Met. The Met had the choice of implementing its cuts by either firing staff, or temporarily closing galleries. Can you guess which one they went for? Yup, that’s right. “The raison d’├ętre of the Museum” says Harold (there, you can tell it’s the Met – I bet you wouldn’t catch the DIA using “raison d’├ętre” in a quote) “is to provide enlightenment to the public at the highest levels of quality and access, and we take the mission particularly seriously in tough times, when inspiration is just what people need.” People like the 357 staff that the Met is eliminating from its workforce, or the ones that are still there, but are now doing the work of more than one person for the same salary.

Extraordinarily, you get the impression that these guys think that they should be applauded for this course of action. This at a time when we have reports from Heritage Preservation, the Inter Agency Working Group on Scientific Collections, and the National Science Foundation, all of which document the precipitous decline in the care of our national collections; a decline driven principally by cuts in resources and the loss (without replacement) of specialist staff.

Of course, I suspect that they don’t really think this (or at least Graham doesn’t; Harold is probably speaking from someone else's script). What they are doing is performing the age-old administrative art of taking something brown and stinking and describing it as “fertilizer.” There are two main reasons why they’re cutting Behind-the-Scenes, and neither has anything to do with lifting the public's spirits in time of trouble.

First, Front-of-House is relatively cheap compared with Behind-the-Scenes. Collections and conservation staff require a lot of expensive training and command relatively high salaries (although nowhere near as high as senior administrators). By contrast, front-of-house staff require minimal training, get paid less, and are often heavily unionized. This makes it a simple balance book issue; you can eliminate “backstage” positions more easily and get a much bigger financial bang for a smaller number of layoffs. And if you can strong-arm some of your more ancient curators into taking an early retirement package (they’re usually tenured, so layoffs aren’t an option), you can make some really big savings.

The second is a question of appearance. Gallery closures say “we’re not in control of the situation.” With all galleries open as usual you’re saying “times are hard, but through shrewd financial management we’ve maintained control.” Things can be going to rack and ruin in the collections, but this is largely invisible, not just to the public but to the far more important audience of trustees and donors, who rarely get to delve into collection operations and who might otherwise be tempted to ask hard questions of the museum’s administrators.

Whatever short-term hardships may ensue, a program of gallery closures is only temporary. You can always open them again when conditions improve. Your guards and custodial staff can be replaced. But what is happening in our collections now is the steady erosion of expertise (something we've covered before). Staff are not being replaced, and even when they are you’ve lost the opportunity for the new generation to learn from the last one. The staff that are left are battling to keep core, short-term activities alive. Longer term scholarship and collection improvement is dying out in many institutions. And if the various reports that I’ve quoted above are to be believed, we are rapidly approaching a point from which these collections will not return. If I were a member of the public visiting the Met or the DIA, I’d be less concerned about whether I get to see every gallery I want this year, and more worried about whether any of this stuff will be around for my grandchildren to be “enlightened” by.

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