The other day on his blog Modern Art Notes Tyler Green suggested that museums that suffer severe financial meltdowns should close their doors rather than rescue themselves by selling work from their collections. Their collections should be redistributed among other, more solvent museums that could continue to show the work.
Aside from the obvious objection that when push comes to shove no institution is going to let itself go down if it has any alternative, I think this is a position that fails to take seriously that there’s a public interest in preserving institutions, not just the art they hold. Different museums have different missions and each provides its own kind of focus within the artworld ecosystem. This is why very few people thought it would be a good idea for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art to “merge” with the LA County Museum. A freestanding MOCA was more likely to organize the kind of shows that MOCA is famous for. And if, say, the Jewish Museum in New York went down — not that it’s given any sign of being in difficulty; I’m just using it here as an example — even if its collection were to be picked up by other museums, I don’t think we’d see those other places making it a priority to mount a show like “Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater”, an exhibition there now that it’s simply in the DNA of the Jewish Museum to do.
And if the badly mismanaged National Academy Museum disappeared, New York would be without a place that focuses as much as they have on undersung/out-of-fashion figures in American art history. I can’t see the Whitney finding space on its calendar anymore for something like the George Tooker retrospective that just closed at the Academy. Unless I’m mistaken, the last time the Whitney gave serious attention to Tooker was as part of a three-artist show almost 20 years ago at its old Philip Morris outpost. The Academy brings artists like him back into living memory, and if it goes, so does its mission, even if its collection survives here and there at other institutions.