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Brooklyn Museum is first in U.S. to sell art to help pay its costs

Erika Beras Sep 18, 2020
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People roam around the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on Aug. 29, the day it reopened to the public after shutting in mid-March. The museum is preparing for a $100 million loss this year. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
COVID-19

Brooklyn Museum is first in U.S. to sell art to help pay its costs

Erika Beras Sep 18, 2020
Heard on:
People roam around the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on Aug. 29, the day it reopened to the public after shutting in mid-March. The museum is preparing for a $100 million loss this year. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
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The pandemic has been nothing short of a disaster for many cultural institutions. Take art museums, for example: Many are facing severe budget shortfalls. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art may face a deficit of over $100 million this year. Some smaller museums may have to close permanently. 

Next month, Brooklyn Museum will sell 12 pieces from its permanent collection, the first major museum in the United States to do so to pay for operating costs. Museums regularly sell art to acquire other art, but selling art for financial reasons? That’s long been a huge no-no, said David Yermack, a professor of finance at New York University.

“The rationale for that was really to just keep the curators from selling off the collection to overpay themselves to personally consume the value of the collection,” he said.

But then the pandemic happened. 

“People have stopped coming and stopped paying admission,” said Michael O’Hare, professor emeritus of public policy at University of California, Berkeley.

That means museums will be facing budget shortfalls, said Brent Benjamin, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors. 

“Anywhere from tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. So really a significant financial impact,” he said.

Art museums are in a unique position to ride out the pandemic crisis, unlike zoos or natural history museums, said Wayne State University art historian Jeffrey Abt.

“They have assets that can be translated into cash fairly quickly and fairly efficiently,” he said.

And most major art museums have a surplus of art, said Yermack of NYU. He estimated five paintings are in storage for every one on display.

“If they sold these off, not only could they improve their own financial positions, but you could really find other places for the art to be displayed,” Yermack said. “Smaller museums could build their own collections.”

And if it came to it, those smaller museums, too, could sell that art. 

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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