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Warning: Museum-related Digression

Not deep enough, not by half.

Lot 194, hammer price: $22,500. Estimate:$4,000-$5,000

Lot 194, hammer price: $22,500. Estimate:$4,000-$5,000

On November 13, Augusta Auctions held a sale in New York that included some really wonderful things, and chances are good that if you read this blog, you know about some of the items, like the British consul’s coat, some very lovely leather trousers, and my personal favorite, the Rhode Island man’s day suit.

That suit! I’ve heard about that suit from a couple of people, but I’ve never seen it in person. I’ve made a jacket from a pattern taken from the coat, but until the photos turned up on the auction site, I didn’t know what the original looked like. It’s not flashy. You think, it’s a plain brown linen suit, no big deal, until you start to look at the simple, direct construction methods (which I have seen in other Rhode Island garments), and the rather elegant lines. This seems, from the distance at which I have to observe it, very like the boy’s jacket at Connecticut Historical Society. They share similar lines, are similar in color, and probably represent the most common everyday wear of the middling sorts of southeastern New England.

Historians and curators increasingly recognize the importance of the “common everyday” people and their material world, whether it’s Jill Lepore on Jane Franklin Mecom or whoever bought this suit. There are and were more of the 99% than the 1%, and to really understand the past, we have to collect what we can to document the daily lives of the majority of the people.

So of course I wanted this suit very badly. I looked up previous auction results, I poked around in other museum’s catalogs, and looked at our own collections. I prepared a case statement and took it to the Board committee that oversees Collections– when we spend large sums, we have to get approval. The Board committee authorized me to bid, but set a limit based on our acquisitions budget, which is funded from prior sales of duplicate or unrelated material in our collection. (Things like 20th century oriental rugs and mid-Atlantic corner cupboards– we can’t use them, they weren’t made or used in Rhode Island, but were acquired to furnish our house museum, until it was over-furnished. Then we went through a lengthy and formal deaccession process.)

Watching the online bidding, I could tell the sale was hot: there were folks with deep, deep pockets bidding, and I knew early on I would not get the suit. By the time it was all over, the hammer price was $22,500 (it’ll be $27,000 with the buyer’s premium) for a suit with a $4,000 – $5,000 estimate. I should say that it did rawther well, considering, but even in a different budget year, I would not in my wildest dreams have gone as high as the winning bidder did. Every result in this sale felt new, and dangerous, the way the Betty Ring sampler sale prices felt new and dangerous.

These prices feel dangerous because they skew the market and the past in a curious way: when the objects of the everyday become this valuable, this expensive, how can a museum with a mission to interpret the past of a specific people ever hope to compete? I can’t, not even with a concerted effort to develop a donor base that would support an acquisition at more than four times an estimate. What does that do to the market? It puts it squarely in the realm of the 1%.

That 1% is not just oil barons, it’s museums with enormous endowments and revenue streams, like the Met. I’ve posted before about the difference in museum revenue streams and endowments, and how a place like the Met can gross over a billion dollars in revenue in a fiscal year. With money like that, $22,500 is nothing. Museums like the Met and the MFA and the PEM and LACMA can out-bid smaller museums, vacuum up collections, and amass great hoards of material. What the little people have to do is to build relationships, and hope that they can get some of the material before it ever gets to auction. I didn’t have that chance, but it’s the only one I’ll ever have in what seems to be a new market for old things.

This sale also made me think that the museum world is increasingly a winner-take-all world much like politics or business, or even education. There are the haves, with large endowments and major gifts, attracting more gifts and endowments, and then there are the have-nots, with very limited funds and volunteer staffs. Those of us in the middle are feeling the same squeeze that the ever-smaller middle class is feeling, with similar income erosion as what our endowments earn buys us less, and as grant funds are ever harder to get. Programs are more competitive, and there’s less money for the big national endowments (NEA, NEH, IMLS) to give away.

Capitalism and market forces are at work, changing collections and changing how museums can and will operate. We have to radically and rapidly rethink how museums function both in acquiring collections (if we can continue to acquire them at all– there’s a cost not only to acquiring but to keeping) and in making them accessible. The smaller museums have to make better cases for mattering more to their audiences, or culture will be increasingly sequestered in larger, richer places.