DYING OF SUCCESS: HOW TO KEEP SUSTAINABLE MUSEUMS IN THE 21ST CENTURY

Just a few days ago, the ranking of the most visited museums in the world in 2018 was published. Once again, the Louvre occupied the first position, and also with great satisfaction, we saw the Reina Sofía Museum in the top 20 for another year. In the world panorama, European museums have a considerable weight, with nine institutions located in the first 20 positions. Taken together, the figures reflect a 15% increase in the number of visitors, demonstrating the growing interest of the public in accessing these large collections.

Visiting the "Mona lisa" in the Louvre. Photo: Pedro Fiuza/NurPhoto — Sipa, (from Associated Press nytimes.com)

However, these data are not as flattering as it might seem. In spite of the dimensions of these enormous museums, the volume of visitors is such that the enjoyment of the works suffers and the maintenance tasks are increasingly demanding. On May 27, the Louvre was forced to close its doors by a strike called by the security personnel in protest at the lack of resources before this flood of visits. The corridors cramp, and the artworks disappear behind a parapet of raised arms, smartphone in hand, to take the souvenir photo between tourist hordes. This museum, in particular, exceeded 10 million visitors last year, which represented an increase of 25% over the previous year.

This phenomenon is linked to the boom of tourism in recent years. Not only travelling has become more affordable, but it has become one more point in the list of "things to do in life" for those of us who cross through the 21st century. The enormous range of possibilities that the present offers us collides with the need to adopt measures to protect the cultural heritage and local style of life. At the same time, it is necessary to fight against the power of attraction of some places especially demanded, something that negatively affects the sustainability of their lifestyle and the stationary character of their economy. There is much talk today about sustainable tourism, and it should be taken seriously because the displacements of people and the expansion of capitalist consumption habits have a direct impact on the environment and the conservation of monuments.

'Dalí', la exposición más visitada de Europa, by: Miguel Ángel García Vega (via blogs.elpais.com)

This is not an easy task. Tourism is one of the main economic engines in many countries. Some institutions lack the injection of public funds and must be supported entirely by their income, obtained many times from tickets’ sale. Some museums, such as the Prado, try to establish a policy that allows visitors to continue enjoying the tour and prohibits taking photographs with their phones in the showrooms. The reasons for taking this measure are multiple, and so that no one can complain (because there are those who complain), they have proceeded to digitalise the masterpieces of the collection with high definition images accessible on the official website.

These data reveal that the cultural sector is also a part of the major trends that prescribe the obligation to visit certain centres and sites and take the mandatory photo to share it on social networks. It is positive that art can be "trendy", but it is not if this trend leads to the deterioration of the museum's experience, a false knowledge of what is being seen, the kidnapping of certain institutions as opposed to others in the immediate environment that remain empty, and the standardisation of museums as a consequence of globalisation. In the debate on the future of these institutions in the 21st century, which took place in Paris in January 2018 and attended by the directors of the world's leading museums, Bernard Blistène, director of the Center Pompidou, declared: "A museum must not tend towards an ideal collection that does not exist, but must be built from its singularity. It would be ridiculous to see how museums are homogenised to respond to a definition that, in reality, we should deconstruct: that of modern art. We have to rethink the initial model."

Andy Stalman, “Louvre” (from tendencias21.net)

The future challenges for these centres are not only the need to face their activity with increasingly tight budgets but also the fulfilment of a social and cultural mission that affects society worldwide. And while working towards those objectives, issues such as sustainability and balance in the volume of visitors, are critical. Some voices suggest that decentralisation should be encouraged, opening branches of the leading museums in other parts of the world, such as the Louvre, to mention a close example, which will soon open its Abu Dhabi centre. But these solutions are a clear example of the impact of globalisation and how it also reaches the art sector. Mass tourism (and its cultural consumption) is so intimately linked to this phenomenon that statistics seem to yield contradictory results.

Museum of Natural History of London. Photo: Son of Groucho (from Flickr, via waitamoment.co.uk)

Back to the Prado, with its almost constant 3 million visits in recent years, a survey launched earlier this year to test the habits of the Spaniards indicates that only 5.7% visited the museum in the last year, that 37.5% have never visited it and 16% have no interest in doing so. We know that the statistics are that, statistics, but the data brings us closer to a reality that seems to go unnoticed. In this boom to go to the great museums, national visitors are the least interested in enjoying these institutions. And this may be the reason that explains why the large art galleries are crowded, and the most modest museums, equally interesting, remain empty. Perhaps one of the main lines of work is to continue educating in art and culture to awaken the interest of citizens to get closer to the art that they have at reach, while channelling other forms of funding for museums to ensure their sustainability without having to depend so much on the volume of visits.

 

Buying the first work of art always instils respect. A difficult feeling to define that mixes vertigo with adrenaline. But over uncertainty and caution, a pleasurable sense of connection, understanding, and desire prevails. That work that, once seen, stays in the mind, reappears in the memory several times a day and seems to tell you that it is willing to be part of your home, is the perfect candidate to make the decision.

In the first steps, many collectors do point out that one does not start from an established plan, but rather that one acquires pieces based on taste and the connection one feels with them until, after time, they realise that the volume of works that accumulates can be labelled as a "collection". For example, this is how Alicia Aza explains it:

“I was not aware that I was collecting until many years later when a third party named me as a collector and talked about my collection. In 2005, I became aware of what collecting means and decided to articulate a collection with an identity of criteria and formats”.

Marcos Martín Blanco, co-founder, with his wife Elena Rueda, of the MER Collection, shares this same opinion:

“Collecting has been a passion, driven by a visceral state that encourages you to do so. The collection, in terms of acquisitions, has not been particularly complicated because, let's face it: it is easy to buy because they are all beautiful things and you have some clear idea of where you want to go, but at first those preferences were not so clear. It is with the time that a criterion is being formed”.

It is not always this way, of course, but for the buyer who starts out on this path, the personal connection that entails the first piece is essential. There it is the germ of a lasting relationship that is not limited to a simple aesthetic question but is an open window to knowledge, to exploration, to a world that is often unknown to us and awakens our fascination. The seed of that connection is purely sentimental, and it is precisely this impulse that determines the first acquisitions. The first piece is never forgotten.

Art Madrid'20, photo by Ana Maqueda

Exceeding the usual recommendations made by advisers and agents, rare is the occasion when the art lover decides to buy by pure investment. These paths usually open later, when the volume of pieces is large enough. In addition, there are those who are a bit against this classic concept of the traditional collector, approached from an eccentric, elitist and little accessible vision. On the contrary, art buyers are, above all, art lovers, sentient beings and permeable to creative stimulus who, at a given moment, decide to deepen the relationship they already have with art to take a piece home.

It is not that hard to overcome that small psychological barrier that turns the visitor into a buyer if one approaches the matter from a more personal and intimate perspective than from social consideration. Small-format works, graphic work or serial photography are of great help for this, whose price range, generally more affordable, allows a closer comparison to the daily basis expenses. In this way, the purchase of art falls within the range of feasible activities and becomes something close and possible.

Art Madrid'20, photo by Marc Cisneros

At that moment, a different relationship with art begins, based on pure experience and coexistence with the acquired piece. Perhaps it can be seen as an act of daring, but on many occasions, it is more a matter of necessity and transformation. Collectors also agree that the acquisition of an artwork is an exercise on personal analysis and opening up to a new field of knowledge that was previously alien to us. Alicia Aza explains that the reason she acquired her first piece of video art, by Sergio Prego, is because she did not understand it and because she saw it as a challenge and an opportunity to self-improve. This open window to knowledge creates new connections and bonds with creators, as one of the most fascinating parts of the process. Candela Álvarez Soldevilla explains that

"I think the most interesting thing in the art world is talking to artists. They are people with a special sensitivity to listen and understand.”

And Alicia Aza also says:

"I can share the satisfaction of being able to count on many artists in my circle of close friends today, and that is a long way to go."

Thus, with works that seem acceptable within the horizon of expenses that each one considers affordable, it is easy to find a piece that catches us. Since then, our home also evolves into a space in which art has a permanent place and presence, and there is no doubt that this transforms us inside.

Art Madrid'20, photo by Henar Herguera

Jaime Sordo, owner of Los Bragales collection and founder of the 9915 Contemporary Art Collectors Association, has always defined his relationship with art as a true passion and a vital necessity. For buyers who start on this path, he has the following recommendation:

“It is an essential condition that they feel the need to live with their passion to enjoy the works. Another very important aspect is that before making decisions for purchases, they are informed, so it is necessary to read specialised newspapers and books, visit exhibitions and museums and a lot of contact with galleries, which is an important and very specific source of information of the artists they represent. Finally, the presence in national and international art fairs. All this generates information and training.”

Indeed, fairs have become a good place for discovery because they condense a wide offer and allow diverse and global contact in a concentrated way. For this reason, many new generation buyers start in the context of an event such as Art Madrid, whose closeness and quality constitute a unique opportunity to meet, soak up and feed the passion for art.

(*) quotes taken from various interviews published in public media between 2013 and 2019.