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Gaining from lending

The February 2009 issue of The Art Newspaper reports on a dispute about how to share the profits of the successful Paris exhibition 'Picasso and the Masters': more than a million euros in total. The main lending institutions – the Musée Picasso, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Louvre – insist that the Réunion des Musées Nationaux (RMN), which organized the blockbuster event, should divide the profits among them, since they lent the highlights of their own collections to the Grand Palais for a long period, to the disappointment of their own visitors. The idea that museums can earn money by sending their masterworks out on loan is nothing new to American museums, most of which are not constrained by government policy. Dutch museums have been reaping the benefits of this idea ever since the early 1990s, when the trend towards greater autonomy began. In France, this form of cultural entrepreneurship is still at an early stage, because state-subsidized museums were not allowed to operate commercially until 2003. In the meantime, museums in these countries and several others have seen public authorities decreasing their budgets for the culture sector and encouraging market forces wherever possible.

The Kröller-Müller Museum, which became autonomous from Dutch government in 1994, has come to depend for its very survival on revenues from lending its works to other institutions. The museum sends large numbers of masterpieces to different parts of the world every year. Early February, for instance, marked the completion of a very successful exhibition of our Van Gogh drawings in Brescia, with almost 213,000 visitors. Last year, the Kröller-Müller and the Van Gogh Museum joined forces to mount an exhibition in Seoul, attracting more than 750,000 visitors. When we bring a coherent ensemble of works of art to a new audience, we make a great many people happy and enhance the image of the Netherlands, while raising much-needed funds. Unfortunately, our main sponsor, the Dutch culture ministry, keeps reducing its operating grant, so that despite our significant new streams of revenue, we are in no financial condition to offer anything extra to our visitors in the Netherlands. On the contrary, in the years ahead our museum will have to cut 15% of its staff, and the effects will be noticeable.

Kröller-Müller is not the only museum that is feeling the impact of market forces. Many museums are trying to survive or to make a profit by organizing one crowd-pleasing exhibition after another. To do that, however, they need works of art that are iconic in character. The kinds of works that form a large part of the Kröller-Müller Museum’s collection. In recent years, loan requests for works of this type have risen through the roof. For the sake of our own financial survival, and because we cannot and will not disappoint the visitors from all over the world who travel to our museum to see that one special work of art, we feel compelled more and more often to say no.

What will the future bring, here in the Netherlands? Because we live in an environment where we must fend for ourselves, it seems logical for us, like the museums in France, to demand a share of the profits that other museums earn with our artistic treasures. Nevertheless, this is a tricky proposition, because while the Dutch authorities require us to generate more and more independent income, they also impose requirements on how we do it, including the requirement that loans between museums should be as free as possible of financial conditions. In other words, there is an uncomfortable but familiar tension between the nanny state that cannot let go and the businesslike state that aims to reduce its spending on museums. I regret the fact that museums are becoming less idealistic places, but it is the consequence of a political choice. In the near future, therefore, outgoing loans for profit are likely to become and remain the norm.

Evert van Straaten
March 2009

Photo: billboard Van Gogh exhibition in Brescia, Italy (photography: Bas Mühren/KMM)