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Art Museums: Issues in Profits, Acquisition and Ethics

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Arts
Wordcount: 3438 words Published: 14th Jun 2018

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Acquisition, Ethics, and Profit in the Art World

What happens in the art world affects all parts of it, from the most well endowed museum to the myriad lesser-known and unknown galleries that try to eke out a living. This paper will examine the ways in which museums have weathered the vagaries of the market over the past few decades, including not-for-profit institutions as well as the for-profit sector, including the gray area in which the two—rarely—meet.

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The unifying factor, as this paper will show, is the reputation of the institution. The reputation of any building that houses works of art is a priceless commodity, whether it is a huge institution of international reputation, or a small but well-respected gallery with equally high standards of decorum and ethics. To maintain that reputation at all costs is of vital importance if an institution is to survive and remain a respected part of the art community.

Ethics, Profit and Culture in Museums

The role of museums in contemporary society has changed in the last several decades; still considered essential to society as both reflection and mirror, museums have found themselves floundering for financial support as never before. To continue to thrive—often just to survive—they have had to adapt to meet the new demands of a multicultural world, while at the same time maintaining their respected status. ‘Traditionally seen as temples for the muses, today’s museums are being challenged to be ethical for society and to build their reputation’ (Wood & Rentschler, 2003).

Traditionally, museums throughout the Western world have supported themselves in a variety of ways, most of which are dependent on cultural travel and funding sources. Admission receipts and gift-shop sales form part of their income. Donations from the government and from private and other funding sources supplement that. In recent years, however, cultural tourism rates have dropped, and additional funding from government and private sources has dwindled, leaving budgetary needs unmet. To stay afloat, museums have had to adapt and change with the times. They have done, and continue to do this, in a number of ways. Among these ways, unfortunately, have been activities that have raised eyebrows in the art world, and questions about acquisition, ethics, and profit have come to the fore.

Importance of Reputation

As institutions which house the priceless treasures and artifacts of our cultural pasts, museums are generally held in high regard. Among smaller galleries, there is also a hierarchy, primarily based on integrity and fair dealings with artists and with each other. For the larger institutions, though, in order to maintain this regard, they are expected to adhere to a higher standard.

This expectation is so deeply ingrained that it seems at times a given: museums are considered bastions of artistic culture and historical identity. They are institutions which foster intellectual growth and which exercise discriminating taste and ethical behavior in building and maintaining their collections. ‘Regardless of the exhibition or programme concepts’, notes Edson, ‘there are qualities and initiatives that are fundamental to museums, such as intellectual honesty, promotion of critical thinking, enhancement of open-mindedness and the sensitizing of visitors to the commonwealth of humankind’ (2001: p. 43). This is a tall order to uphold—and one which is under constant scrutiny.

What happens when these hallowed institutions fall upon financial hardship? They adapt. The ways in which they adapt may change our preconceived notions of what a museum ‘should’ be. For example, the concept of ‘blockbuster exhibits’ in the eighties was considered unacceptable to some. This blatant advertising to ‘sell’ art—in essence, ‘sell’ culture, seemed a betrayal of the highest standards, a mockery of itself. It forced many to reconfigure commonly held notions about the institutions themselves.

In his memoirs, art critic Richard Feigen echoes what many felt at the time: ‘As museums began to commercialize, to adapt to 1970s inflation, exhibitions also veered away from an emphasis on scholarship toward a preoccupation with box office’ (2000: 137). The very words ‘box office’, in such close proximity to ‘scholarship’ and ‘museums’, would have seemed quite jarring at the time. Yet, since then, we have grown more accustomed—albeit gradually—to the concept of art-for-profit. After all, someone has got to pay for the acquisitions and maintenance of cultural artifacts. If the funding is not forthcoming, museums have had to choose whether to close up their doors and die out like an obsolete breed, or to reinvent themselves in ways they deem acceptable.

Having for the most part chosen the latter, museums have had to become more aggressive in pursuit of the funds necessary to at least survive, and hopefully to flourish. This has necessarily caused their patrons to reassess and re-evaluate as well. ‘Just as museum definitions have changed, so too has our understanding of museum ethics’ explain Wood and Rentschler (2003). It has also forced us to understand the roles of the individuals who run these institutions, as Feigen concedes: ‘In this new era of museology’, he writes, ‘a director’s success has come to be measured by the crowds he attracts, the funds he raises, the buildings he builds, and how effectively he can dodge political cross fire’ (2000: 109).

A major issue which has sprung from this process of adaptation is the need to maintain an impeccable reputation in the process. The last few decades have been a period of just that, as the concept of the museum—and the actual institutions themselves—have evolved to meet the needs of the people they serve: the patrons. Today’s museums are called upon to offer an enhanced experience in an appropriately comfortable environment, one that instills a sense of cultural pride as well as challenge. In so doing, Edson writes: ‘The museum by facilitating that experience serves the individual and the host community to the fullest extent of the concept of public service’ (Edson, 2001: p. 44). In order to do this, however, the reputation of the museum must remain intact; this means that decisions about affiliations with those outside the museum itself must be absolutely circumspect. And this, in recent years, is where museums have been coming under fire.

The Staff

The staff of a museum—from curators to custodians—forms the backbone of day-to-day operations. Considered in that light, the actions of staff members may be seen as a reflection on the museum itself. This is something that pertains to all levels of staffing. The security personnel who are responsible for safeguarding national treasures may not be accorded the highest prestige in society, but the importance of their roles should never be played down.

A disturbance that distracts even a single security staff member from absolute vigilance can potentially set off a series of events that may lead to loss through damage or theft. And there are several known instances in which the roles of security personnel have been key in allowing unauthorised access to works of art: that they would willingly allow this is untenable, but not inexplicable. Monetary pressures mount, and outside influences can be very persuasive. ‘Arts organisations cannot think that their people will be immune to these pressures’ assert Wood and Rentschler (2003). They advise that clearly stated ethical practices be a part of every organisation to avoid this very thing. They must be part of the training program, and they must be reviewed and reinforced on a regular basis to maintain both morale and loyalty. Failure to do so can have irrevocably damaging results: ‘If temptation is not resisted, it can compromise the values for which the organisation stands and irrevocably damage the reputation that it may have worked for years to create’ (Wood & Rentschler, 2003).

These practices must apply to all levels of museum staff, not just those who can provide immediate access. What about those in positions further up in the hierarchy, who have just as much access as well as additional access and power? Their actions must at all times be in accordance with museum policy; in addition, they must adhere to the law—local, national, and international. This is particularly important when it comes to acquisition of properties whose histories may be questionable. To knowingly—or unknowingly—acquire stolen property is anathema, however authentic a piece may be. Any irregularities regarding provenance are a red flag, since a single lapse in judgment can cost a museum its cultural standing as well as its profitability.

Alan Shestock, Director of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, explains that museum curators ‘are acquirers. . . . Most of us go into the profession because the desire to accumulate and bring together objects of quality is in our blood. We are personally and professionally devoted to adding to and improving our holdings . . . ‘ (Shestock, 1989: 97–98). This kind of passion, paired with the need to keep one’s collection top-rate, can cause considerable angst. To know that a particular, highly coveted item is authentic is an exciting enough discovery for a museum professional. To know, furthermore, or to merely suspect, that its origins may be less-than-circumspect, means that this object cannot become a part of the museum’s holdings. This is not an easy thing to do. Explains Shestock: ‘To consciously or intentionally turn down a highly desirable object we can afford to buy on the basis that we suspect that it might have been removed illegally from its country of origin—and also knowing that it will end up in the collection of a rival institution or an unscrupulous private collector is a very hard thing to do’ (1989: 97–98).

Edson and Dean point out several situations in which the circumstances may lead to ethically questionable behaviors. First, there are curators whose job responsibilities include researching and writing about the objects in their collections. ‘Curators hired to research and interpret the collection in their care sometimes regard the notes and associated materials that result from this work as their personal property, regardless of the museum’s ownership of the actual collections objects’ (Edson & Dean, 1994: p. 235). If the funding for this research is solely supplied by the institution, all rights would seem to revert to the museum. However, it is seldom this straightforward, as personal research may be involved as well. The situation becomes further complicated when international objects are involved, as there are several sets of law which much be adhered to in order to maintain high ethical standards.

There are other, even more controversial situations, however, many of which result in unavoidable conflicts of interest. With whom should one’s loyalty lie? According to Edson and Dean, in the case of curators, loyalty must be first to the institution; to avoid having to resolve the issue, they suggest judicious discrimination in selection of any extracurricular pastimes: ‘activities that conflict with this loyalty or cause curators to favor outside or personal interests over those of their institutions must be avoided’ (1994: 232). What of gifts that are made directly to a museum professional? This can be confusing, since ‘gifts’ can cover a range of services. A professional who would never under any circumstance accept a costly creation of artistic work may think nothing at all of accepting other favors, such as discounts. But these, too, must be avoided, and ultimately rejected.

Finally, since it is commonly accepted that most individuals do not go into the arts for its lucrative remuneration, there may come times when it is necessary for museum personnel to supplement their incomes with additional paying work. This is particularly complex in cases in which higher-level museum professionals, such as curators, ‘moonlight’, or do additional evening or weekend work for pay. Such specialized types of work may bring them into contact with numerous opportunities for temptation, all of which are to be turned down to maintain propriety. Even a distant association with parties who are entangled with any kind of illegal trade can taint that professional’s reputation, and therefore the museum itself. And cases like this are more common than most would like to admit—not to mention far-reaching: ‘the illicit traffic in cultural property is, like narcotics, an international problem’ (Herscher, 1989: p. 118).

Art for Profit

In their article, ‘Show Me the Monet’, Steve Friess and Peter Plagens broach a subject which continues to be a point of contention in the art world. They discuss an agreement between the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the new Bellagio in Las Vegas, Nevada. According to the agreement, the Boston museum would lend a number of Monets to the Bellagio—for a fee.

The tradition of extending loans to one another is long-standing among museums, large and small. The agreement to do so for cash, is less common. Among the loftier institutions, it is practically unheard of. Lending art works for set sums of money puts a new twist on the issue. In return for the loan of Monets, the Bellagio agreed to pay the Museum of Fine Arts a hefty some—at least one million dollars. ‘The traditional cashless quid pro quo for lending art to other museums—OK, we’ll lend you our Picasso if we can borrow your Matisse—had been augmented by lending fees’ (Friess and Plagens, 2004). This calls into question a number of issues, the most pressing of which seems to be, ‘where does one draw the line?’ If items which are part of a museum’s permanent collection are accorded dollar values and made available for that price, can anyone with appropriate funds ‘borrow’ them? What will this do to the reputations, not only of the museums that engage in this, but to the works of art themselves, and to the notion of cultural heritage in general?

Ethics, Profit, and Culture in Dealership

In a similar vein, private art dealers have had problems of a slightly different nature over the past few decades. Contemporary notions of an art dealer tend to be unkind. Less-than-savory deals, sly cash transactions, cagy tax evasion: these are what come to mind before the subject of art comes into focus. Art critic Peter Schjeldahl puts it succinctly in his article on art dealership in New York, in which he asserts that popular opinion sees the gallery owner as ‘a stock figure of slinky charlatanry, or worse’ (2004). Because of this, it is with no small amount of glee that people welcome gossipy tidbits about high-society art dealers being brought down in shady, six-figure stings. ‘People savor the cynical rush of discovering garden-variety greed behind a pose of lofty, intimidating sophistication’ notes Schjeldahl (2004).

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But, Schjeldahl points out, no matter what one thinks of an art dealer’s character, one thing remains constant: good taste. Without it, all the pretension means nothing. In addition, there is a hierarchy among the smaller circle of individual galleries that are also part of the art world. Judging by her record of accomplishment and her reputation in the art world, Marian Goodman seems to embody the highest of standards. First of all, when it comes to discrimination and taste, Goodman seems to have an abundance of both.

The reputation of a dealer is of great importance in the art world, despite popular conceptions. Goodman, too, has had to weather the storms of changing times, just as larger, loftier museums have had to do, and she, too, has survived. Among her contemporaries, however, Goodman commands a high level of respect for refusing to follow trends and continuing to maintain her own exemplary standards. She employs what some see as ‘old-fashioned’ standards in both her selection of gallery site and her selection of artists.

For example, her gallery is still located in Manhattan, New York City, despite the mass exodus of galleries to outer boroughs of the metropolis. Furthermore, she has steadfastly remained in the pricier part of Manhattan, in the heart of the theatre district, in the mid-fifties. In his New Yorker article, art critic Peter Schjeldahl explains that Goodman could very easily ‘save money and gain vastly more visibility by relocating to Chelsea . . .’ (2004, p. 36). However, Goodman refuses to budge, preferring instead the uniqueness of her own more expensive showplace to the identical ‘hives’ of lower Manhattan. Of course, as a private dealer, she is free of the pressures of a committee of trustees and similar directives.


The art world is at once a seemingly small and insular community on the one hand, and a global community of vast proportions on the other. What happens in this world affects all parts of it, from the most well endowed museum to the lesser-known private galleries. This paper has attempted to examine how both the not-for-profit and for-profit sectors have managed to survive in the last several decades, adapting to best meet the needs of their patrons while maintaining the integrity and values they hold dear.

One thing that is undeniable is reputation: To maintain that reputation at all costs is of vital importance if an institution is to survive and remain a respected part of the art community.

Edson and Dean have noted that ‘Objects communicate far beyond the walls of the museum in which they are housed. They influence the appreciation and appearance of objects of everyday use, and the level of respect and understanding for the personal and collective natural and cultural heritage of a people or nation’ (Edson, 1996, p. 7). The reputation of any building that houses works of art is a priceless commodity, whether it is a huge institution of international reputation, or a small but well-respected gallery with equally high standards of decorum and ethics. The slightest hint of a breach in ethical standards is enough to shake the very foundation of an institution; if the breach itself is, in fact, made known to be fact, it is highly unlikely that it will every regain its former stature, nor command the same level of respect.


Edson, Gary. 2001. ‘”Socioexhibitry’ as Popular Communication’. Museum International: July 2001, Vol. 53, Iss. 3, pp. 40–44.

Edson, Gary and Dean, David. 1994. The Handbook for Museums. London: Routledge.

Feigen, Richard. 2000. Tales from the Art Crypt: The Painters, the Museums, the Curators, the Collectors, the Auctions, the Art. New York: Knopf.

Friess, Steve, and Plagens, Peter. 2004. ‘Show Me the Monet’. Newsweek. New York, Vol. 143, Iss. 4, p. 60.

Herscher, Ellen. 1989. ‘International Control Efforts: Are There Any Good Solutions?’

In Messenger, P., ed. The Ethics of Collecting Cultural Property. Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, pp. 117–128.

Messenger, Phyllis, ed. 1989. The Ethics of Collecting Cultural Property. Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press.

Schjeldahl, Peter. 2004. ‘Dealership: Onward and Upward With the Arts’. The New Yorker. New York: Feb. 2, 2004, p. 36.

Shestock, Alan. 1989. ‘The Museum and Cultural Property: The Transformation of Institutional Ethics’. In Messenger, P., ed. The Ethics of Collecting Cultural Property. Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, pp. 93– 102.

Wood,Greg, and Rentschler, Ruth. 2003.’ Ethical behaviour: The Means for Creating and Maintaining Better Reputations in Arts Organisations’. Management Decision. London: 2003.Vol. 41, Iss. 5/6, p.528-537.


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