Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Artworks supporting the arts

Jack Reznicki, reflecting on Vivian Maier's life and passing, wrote "The compelling issue for me with all this is why some truly talented photographers can’t make a living with their photography and are respected and revered after their passing. Why is there not a support system and economy for such work? This case of Vivian Maier is very reminiscent of Eugene Atget and how photographer Berenice Abbott made the world aware of his wondrous and marvelous images of Paris, after he was gone. John Maloof is playing Berenice Abbott to Vivian Maier’s Eugene Atget." The support system for artists, such as it is, consists of artists, schools, dealers, auctions, collectors and museums. Everyone at every level tries to identify and support talent, but they all face strong limitations as to what they can offer. The reason those limits are so strong is the gross financial mismanagement at art museums. They idly hoard tens of trillions of dollars worth of financial value that could produce hundreds of billions of dollars a year in endowment income that could pay for far more curators, exhibits, teachers, studios and additions to their collections. With that funding, the arts economy could far more comprehensively identify and support talent, enriching artists' lives financially and the public culturally.

It's hard to blame museums, though. It's more the fault of finance and legal experts who've never given museums managements tools that can mobilize that financial value without diminishing the public domain. But then, it's even hard to blame them. I'm aware of two methods that have emerged to mobilize the vast idle endowments at museums: James Maroney's tenancy-in-common plan and my own Coaccession℠. I stumbled across Coaccession trying to find a way to keep archaeologists from picking fights with collectors, and only later figured it was a financial management tool too (and I'm a finance PhD!). So, James Maroney is the only person I know of who consciously looked for a way that a museum (the Barnes Foundation) could use the financial value of its artworks to enlarge its cash endowment, and his method still involves the incentive incompatibility of putting the artwork in a private investor's hands for only the life of the investor. It took sheer good luck to come up with my incentive compatible method, just as it took good luck for John Maloof to find Vivian Maier. But then, life is often that way... progressing in fits and starts from random connections. Here's hoping at least that discoveries lead to progress, onward and upward, rather than one step forward and another step back. With the financial value of artworks supporting the cultural value of the arts, the arts economy's aesthetic explorations can be both broader and deeper. That would be better for humanity than investing much of our money to dig gold up out of the ground only to bury it again in vaults and caches.