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Museums Have Visitors: They Don’t Serve The Wishes Of Market Analysts

April 10th, 2008

Increasingly, criticism is being voiced about the destructive effect of the market on civilized society. This has even reached the hallowed halls of museums. Two leading museologists Robert Janes, formerly of Glenbow in Calgary and Maxwell Anderson, now Director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and formerly of the Whitney in New York have criticised this trend. Janes (“Museums, Corporatism and the Civil Society” Curator The Museum Journal 50(2): 219-237, 2007) observes, “the prevailing worldview in North America is grounded in the belief that continuous economic growth is essential to individual and societal well-being”. He argues that this is enfeebling or diverting museums from realizing their unique strengths and opportunities as social institutions in civil society: museums, he asserts, must exploit their uniqueness, resist domination of marketplace thinking and seek ways of achieving meaning and sustainability within their communities.

Anderson (“Prescriptions for Art Museums in the Decade Ahead”, Curator the Museum Journal 50(1), 9-18, 2007) asserts, “rather than following a path towards community service or an educational mandate, the [museum] field has been led astray by a corporate mindset.” Anderson identifies the primary challenges facing art museums in rebalancing their mission, and suggests a series of remedies to the unrealistic economic model that threatens to exclude education as museums’ primary mandate.

Before dismissing what is said below as overly ideological, consider this statement from John Gray (School Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics) reviewing (in The Guardian September 15, 2007) Naomi Klein’s recent book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Allen Lane).

“Over the past few decades, many of the ideas of the far left have found new homes on the right. Lenin believed that it was in conditions of catastrophic upheaval that humanity advances most rapidly, and the idea that economic progress can be achieved through the devastation of entire societies has been a key part of the neo-liberal cult of the free market. Soviet-style economies left an inheritance of human and ecological devastation, while neo-liberal policies have had results that are not radically dissimilar in many countries. Yet, while the Marxist faith in central planning is now confined to a few dingy sects, a quasi-religious belief in free markets continues to shape the policies of governments.

“Many writers have pointed to the havoc and ruin that have accompanied the imposition of free markets across the world. Whether in Africa, Asia, Latin America or post-communist Europe, policies of wholesale privatisation and structural adjustment have led to declining economic activity and social dislocation on a massive scale. Anyone who has watched a country lurch from one crisis to another as the bureaucrats of the IMF impose cut after cut in pursuit of the holy grail of stabilisation will recognise the process Naomi Klein describes in her latest and most important book to date. Visiting Argentina not long before the economic collapse of 2002, I found the government struggling to implement an IMF diktat to roll back public spending at a time when the economy was already rapidly contracting. The result was predictable, and the country was plunged into a depression, with calamitous consequences in terms of poverty and social breakdown.”

Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies in the University of Oxford, Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author of eight books and his essays appear regularly in the New York Review of Books and weekly in the Guardian (widely syndicated in Europe, Asia and the Americas). In an article in the Guardian last year (22 February 2007) Ash said,

“What is the elephant in all our rooms? It is the global triumph of capitalism. Democracy is fiercely disputed. Freedom is under threat even in old-established democracies such as Britain. Western supremacy is on the skids. But everyone does capitalism. Americans and Europeans do it. Indians do it. Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes do it. Even Chinese communists do it. And now the members of Israel’s oldest kibbutz, that last best hope of egalitarian socialism, have voted to introduce variable salaries based on individual performance. Karl Marx would be turning in his grave. Or perhaps not, since some of his writings eerily foreshadowed our era of globalised capitalism. His prescription failed but his description was prescient.”

In the last 40 or so years much of the business world and many governments (as expressed by New Public Management or NPM, particularly in developed western countries, have adopted market (or “rational”) economics and corporatism. Market mechanisms, according to this approach, should be allowed to determine production and pricing and government should stay out of the way of entrepreneurial business ventures. The focus is on the short term because the emphasis is efficiency as assessed by return on investment reflected in stock price as spruiked by stock market analysists. Rather than seeking new products and markets and quality service, the market oriented business seeks increase in the wealth of shareholders. (To varying extents, Nordic and some other European countries have been less prepared to adopt the market economic model.)

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