More Talk With Jim Cuno

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In today’s final installment of that conversation with James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, we talk about what it might take to make the Institute free to the public — which Cuno says is an idea they have begun — stress begun — to entertain at his museum.

LACAYO: Museum admissions used to be roughly in line with movie tickets. In 1971, when the national average price of a movie ticket was $1.65, an adult could walk into the Museum of Modern Art in New York for $1.75. But five years ago, when a movie ticket in New York was around $12, MOMA decided to raise its admission price from $12 to $20. The movie ticket “metric” was simply blown out of the water. That was a bad precedent. And it was a precedent. Since then any number of museums have hiked their prices to however close to that figure they dared to go. You’ve said recently that it would be interesting to explore how some museums manage to be free of charge. Most of those get targeted subsidies from local government or from corporations or foundations, no?

CUNO: Take Baltimore. A few years ago both the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters got a significant allocation from the city government. [Lacayo: In 2006 the city and county of Baltimore gave the two museums, which each had an annual budget of under $12 million, a grant of $800,000 to cover what they each estimated would be a loss of about $240,000 per year if they eliminated admission fees.] Likewise, St. Louis, which gets city and county money to cover admissions. And when you talk about the national galleries in Britain that have free admission, those get between 50 and 70 per cent of their budgets from the government.

LACAYO: Still, do you think that museums might want to explore these pricing issues with one another? When MOMA went to $20 the system went out of whack. Now with the recession and the resistance your museum just ran into when it decided to raise admission fees, I’m wondering if we’re not arriving at a moment for museums to take stock on this issue the way they did recently over antiquities.

CUNO: Yes, but I don’t know the extent to which we could get any kind of agreement, the funding formulas are so different for each museum. You might get agreement on an “aspirational document”, as they say.

LACAYO: That would be a step. It would remind people that there is an aspiration here.

CUNO: In our case here, we’ve been talking about this, now that we’ve succeeded with our major capital campaign. While there’s still fund-raising to do and endowment loss to make up, I would like us — and we’re just starting to have this conversation here — to have a campaign to endow free admission. What would that take for us? It might take $250 million. We’ve just raised $410 million [to pay for the Institute’s new Modern Wing], but we did that in an easier environment. So maybe it would take longer. But if there’s a goal to do that, you can rally people to it.

LACAYO: A question on another topic. As you know the Indianapolis Museum of Art recently added to their website an interesting feature. They disclose in advance any works from their permanent collection that they’re thinking of selling. I thought that was a good idea, not only because transparency is a value in itself, but because without transparency the whole enterprise of deaccessioning starts to seem murkier than it needs to. I know that many museum directors would rather not do what Indianapolis has done because they worry it will just stir up objections to every sale. But is that something you would consider doing?

CUNO: You know, I’ve never thought about it. I’m slightly skeptical because I think the public trusts the institution to make difficult decisions. We have to earn that trust, and transparency is an important part of that. But full transparency in all respects? I just don’t know whether that’s not going to cause more ill-informed questions that undermine the job.

LACAYO: I’m not suggesting that every institutional decision should be subjected to a plebiscite. But when people don’t find out that an item is for sale until it turns up in an auction house catalogue, it makes the sale seem clandestine. It probably brings the museum more grief than if it said forthrightly and in advance, this is what we’re selling and this is why.

CUNO: We here have been very careful with deaccessioning. We do it very infrequently. So this hasn’t come up as an issue for us as much.

LACAYO: Let’s talk briefly about antiquities. You’ve become one of the chief defenders of the encyclopedic museum and the virtues of having antiquities from all nations available to be appreciated by people outside their nations of origin. A lot of the biggest antiquities disputes of recent years have been settled now — with the Met, the Getty, Boston, Cleveland. Meanwhile, curators tell me that Italy is lending a little more easily to American museums, and not just items that were part of an explicit quid pro quo for antiquities that the U.S. returned to Italy. Are there still developments in this area you’d like to see?

CUNO: First, I want to be slightly skeptical of this view that the Italian government is now being generous. What I hear about loans, it seems to be that those are going to particular museums with which the Italians had problematic relationships [that were mostly settled to their satisfaction] — Boston, the Getty, the Met. But I don’t know if I were in Omaha that the Italian government would respond as generously. We need to see the extent to which they are generous generally.