The chronic financial plight of many of America's art museums is not news. But the loopy ways in which some museums try to bolster revenue certainly is.
The latest example of creative financing is beyond loopy. Way beyond.
Boston's Museum of Fine Arts has rented out 21 Impressionist paintings from its incomparable collection of 36 by Claude Monet to PaperBall, proprietor of a store at the upscale Bellagio hotel and casino in Las Vegas.
Not loaned, mind you, but rented. And not rented to another museum, but to a business. PaperBall was founded in 2001 as a book-publishing arm of New York's PaceWildenstein, one of the most powerful corporations in the international art market. Now it operates the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art.
The store, in turn, is charging $15 admission to see the Monet paintings. They include examples both exceptional and not.
Boston's museum reportedly expects to earn at least $1 million from the rental deal, which lasts 7 1/2 months. Meanwhile, store executives have calculated potential ticket income of at least another $2.4 million, based on projections of 1,000 visitors each business day. Souvenir sales in the gift shop promise another, unspecified bundle. How those hefty revenues might be split with the museum has not been disclosed, and probably won't be.
PaperBall's commercial gambit with the Boston MFA is not a slam-dunk. Attendance and income projections for Las Vegas art venues are notoriously slippery. Three years ago, Guggenheim Museum director Thomas Krens enthusiastically told Forbes magazine that he expected attendance of nearly 3 million visitors annually at his museum's splashy new branch at the Venetian hotel and casino, directly across from Bellagio on the Strip. That optimistic estimate turned out to be off by more than a couple of million, and the venture has since been drastically scaled back.
Still, in the modern history of American cultural institutions, the business arrangement with the Boston MFA appears to be unprecedented. Art museums (including the MFA) have rented portions of their collections to other nonprofit art museums before, an idea that is controversial enough. But renting their art to a business enterprise is apparently unique.
It is also baldly inappropriate, which helps explain why it hasn't been done before.
The desire among art museums to share their treasures with the public -- who, in the last analysis, owns them -- is admirable and to be encouraged. Yet it is also true that anytime an irreplaceable work of art leaves the safe precinct of its museum gallery or storage vault and goes on the road, it is exposed to risk. That's why the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, which represents the leadership of 175 American cultural institutions (including Boston's MFA), has set four guidelines for determining when -- and if -- to loan a work of art.
Its handbook of professional practices is unambiguous. "In any decision about a proposed loan from the collection," it says, "the intellectual merit and educational benefits, as well as the protection of the work of art, must be the primary considerations, rather than possible financial gain" (the emphasis is mine).
In three out of four criteria, the Monet show comes up short. MFA director Malcolm Rogers airily waves away critics of the Vegas rental as "priggish." But the deal in fact makes hash of a judicious museum standard. The show is without intellectual merit, is educationally corrupt and puts a fast-buck premium on financial gain.
Rogers has only the security requirement on his side. Vegas casinos are built like Fort Knox. I can't say what their climate controls are like, but they have more surveillance cameras than a John Ashcroft fever-dream. Those factors go a long way toward the protection of a couple hundred million dollars' worth of Monet.
But intellectual merit? Please. Moving a group of paintings from one city to another doesn't accomplish that. The sorry excuse for an exhibition catalog contributes zero knowledge to the field. A 52-page, $15 souvenir -- which a store employee described to me over the phone as being "like a children's book" -- it features a few vacant paragraphs of introduction and one glossy reproduction of each painting.
Rogers -- echoed by PaperBall's husband-and-wife executives Marc Glimcher and Andrea Bundonis -- has insisted in the press that a broader educational purpose guides him. Simply: The museum is bringing great paintings to ordinary people, wherever they might be, rather than standing back and waiting for ordinary people to come to them. What could possibly be wrong with that?
Call this the crusading evangelist position. If you believe it, I've got some swampland on Boston's Fenway you also might be interested in buying.