We are told that museums are meant to be independent from economic concerns; that they are supposedly untethered from market forces and a logic of profitability. Their primary function is to collect and display art – and to preserve what they have collected for future generations. Museums guarantee and, to a large extent, form, our cultural heritage. We are also told that cultural budgets are shrinking and that some collectors use (or erect their own) museums to ennoble their own collections. The politicians who control the purse strings of public institutions are keen on high visitor numbers and the blockbuster exhibitions that guarantee them. Today a museum’s success is measured above all by its international visibility and its symbolic and actual worth for a city or region.
These are hard times for museums. In Germany, this is especially true for the large number of mid-size, often city-run, institutions with long-standing contemporary art programmes. These places offer the possibility to experience contemporary art in smaller, more remote settings and are vital for the country’s dense and varied institutional network. They too, face the dilemma shared by all museums: how to achieve healthy visitor numbers while retaining credibility amongst ones peers.
Museum Morsbroich in the western German city of Leverkusen was founded in 1951 as the first museum in postwar Germany to be dedicated solely to contemporary art. It hosted the first ever institutional show on conceptual art in (West) Germany, ‘Konzeption – Conception’ in 1969, and over the years, has assembled an exquisite collection. Since February, though, there has been talk of closing its doors and breaking up its collection.
In late February a proposal by the auditing agency KPMG to consolidate the cultural spendings of the city of Leverkusen became public. The report, amongst other things, stated that the closing of Museum Morsbroich would save: ‘778.450 Euro’ per year.
‘A public art collection is not a financial investment that can be plundered depending on the financial situation. It is a piece of art history and represents the cultural memory of its trustees.’ Gerhard Richter
The outcry was huge and, was even predicted by KPMG itself: ‘It is likely that the closing of the museum will be accompanied by protests’, the report dryly notes. Within a few days, many of the city’s politicians had gone public in saying the plan was unacceptable; that the museum should be ‘absolutely untouchable’, as Roswitha Arnold from the city’s Green Party put it, or as Thomas Eimermacher from the conservative party CDU said: ‘closing down the museum is simply impossible to imagine. Full stop.’ Whether for or against, almost everyone seemed to agree that the measure of the worth of a cultural institution like Museum Morsbroich should not be based on numbers alone.
An online petition was created and, to date, has more than 10,000 signatories. Gerhard Richter, whose seminal 1965 painting Tiger is in the museum’s collection and who’s graphic work, alongside Sigmar Polke’s, is currently being exhibited in its galleries wrote an open letter to Leverkusen’s major, Uwe Richrath. ‘A public art collection’, Richter says, ‘is not a financial investment that can be plundered depending on the financial situation. It is a piece of art history and represents the cultural memory of its trustees.’
In light of low visitor numbers at Museum Morsbroich (according to KPMG’s report, over the first six months of 2015, the museum had an average of 54 visitors per day; 18 of them paying customers), the city’s liberal FDP party, had a different proposal: instead of closing the museum completely, the museum should make itself accessible to a wider public.
So here we are. What to make of the debate and where to take sides? For me, closing the museum would be absolutely wrong – it would be a blow to the city and region’s cultural landscape. But so too would be dumbing down the museum’s excellent programme to match some imagined taste of the Leverkusen general public.
Reading the arguments railing against the closing of the Morsbroich in the German media, I can’t help but feel that many of them are self-evident and apodictic; that the outcry is predictable and somewhat automated. Of course it is a given that an institution whose major task is to preserve works of art, has to be preserved as well. But talk of preservation reminded me of a sticker that became popular in the 1990s, when big cuts were underway in German theatres: ‘Theater muss sein’ (‘Theatre must be’).
The problem, then, is as much to do with the way debates such as the one around the Morsbroich becomes railroaded to an almost automated call and response, head versus heart, dichotomy: pure economic reasoning (as a commentator for the right-leaning Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung put it, ‘a museum is cheapest – in fact, is free – when it is gone’), followed by equally self-explanatory and slightly moralizing arguments that ‘culture is a must’.
We have to talk about how to solve the problems this or that particular museum is facing, instead of simply proposing, when times get tough, to shut them down.
That museums are ‘absolutely untouchable’ is just as wrong as judging them solely along the lines of profitability. Museums change, move and yes, sometimes close. They also are – for quite some time now – subject to the pressures of branding and marketing to an extent that is threatening to override their actual purpose. It’s become the norm for directors and curators to spend more time fundraising than thinking about programming and how to mediate the complexity of contemporary art to a broader public. Just to give you an example: According to the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung, Museum Morsbroich gets roughly €92,500 in public money for its exhibition budget and their curators get in upwards of €200,000 more per year from fundraising.
What these highly heated debates make impossible, then, is exactly the more differentiated discussion that is so deeply needed. Of course, some problems are shared by all museums, wherever they are. And for sure, when put up against the wall, there is not many options other than to fight for sheer survival. But rather than discuss the role of museums in general, we need to talk about their individual profiles, their actual contexts, their different (often multiple) audiences and the specific challenges they face. We have to talk about how to solve the problems this or that particular museum is facing, instead of simply proposing, when times get tough, to shut them down.
In June, the Leverkusen city council wants a decision on the Morsbroich to be reached. Now, after the ritualized media frenzy, there is relative silence. But it seems to me to be exactly the time to have a proper discussion.