The Biased Curator Syndrome: towards a new democratic loan system

By Gemma Boon – Director, Museum No Hero, Delden (Netherlands).

Museums often manage more objects than they can show. The overflow is safely kept in the art depot. Museums share objects that they don’t intend to show themselves with other museums, through a complex system referred to as ‘the art lending system’. But how does this actually work, securing a loan from another museum? This article intends to shed some light on the pitfalls of the current loan system and offers some possible solutions for the problems museums are facing today.

Museums Serve the People
In recent years, the core task of museums has shifted from 'management, conservation and education' to 'leisure activities and entertainment'. Exhibitions are no longer primarily educational, but marketing tools to attract more visitors. Getting the right loans from other museums is therefore crucial for making an exhibition succeed. More so, successful temporary exhibitions are of crucial importance to the financial sustainability of the museum. Unfortunately, even if an exhibition is very successful, the overall maintenance costs of museums are exceptionally high. Due to preservation and conservation costs of a collection, a museum is barely able to compete with other commercial companies and are therefore still dependent on government support to keep their doors open.

Museums need tax money to survive. Taxpayers from all over the country invest in museums, but the way art is spread over the country is not proportional to the amount of tax people pay. This is especially true when it comes to masterpieces, referred to as 'the canon of art'. When people pay tax, museums should feel obliged to give them access to art treasures, even if they do not live close to an art museum with a top collection. Visitors who live in a part of the country with limited access to art inevitably question the financing of resources for museums that are out of their reach.

Art loans can make a difference here. Art loans give smaller, local museums access to the art from the ‘big’ five in the big cities, but also grant all museums the possibility to make interesting exhibitions, no matter how big or small. Loans are therefore crucial to motivate taxpayers to keep investing in museums.

The Maze
Discussions with colleagues from the field show that the (international) loan procedure is anything but transparent. Each institute has its own loan procedure and jumping through the hoops of the art loan system is time-consuming. The outcome might also seem highly arbitrary in some cases. You would expect museums to depend on facts, such as the extent to which the work can be transported safely or the climatic conditions of the fellow museum, to decide whether or not to borrow to a partner museum, but this is rarely the case. Another problem is the visibility of collections. At many museums, it is not really clear what one has to offer. When museums present their collection online it is often an incomplete overview, in which important details for fellow museums - such as conditions of the painting or already promised loan periods - are not transparent. This information is often included in collection management systems such as Adlib or TMS, but not publicly shared online. Although there are initiatives for a global art network such as Vastari, there seems to be little enthusiasm at museums to exchange data on these kinds of platforms. I previously thought that this was due to the fact that museums generally suffer from fear of new technology. Many museums still doubt the need to share information about the collection online and make it freely available to the public. It could be that curators simply are not 'internet savvy' enough to take the plunge. But when I discussed this topic with colleagues from the museum world, I discovered that there might be a more serious underlying problem that I would describe as 'the biased curator syndrome'.

The Social Barrier
Why do curators around the world opt for this 'old world' system, while modern technology makes it possible to regulate matters and make the processes faster and more transparent? You could argue that money plays a big role. Digitizing a collection, making it searchable online and linking your content management system is not cheap. It is also a time-consuming task, because many museums have a backlog in the field of archive digitization. But there is more to this. There seems to be a social barrier that impedes modernization in museums. The following case makes clear what I mean:

Peter comes from a modest background. His parents do not understand why he wants to study art history when he has the brains to become a doctor. But Peter insists and his parents accept his choice, because they want their son to be happy. They cannot support Peter financially, so when Peter goes to study art history in Groningen, he is forced to take out a student loan. Peter is doing well at the university. He gets the opportunity to graduate and ends as one of the best PhD students of his year. But after five years of studying, Peter has accumulated a considerable study debt and the low salary of a PhD student did not give him an opportunity to build up his own capital. When Peter gets the offer to work for a medium-sized museum in the North of the Netherlands, he seizes the opportunity with both hands. Firstly, because he wants to prove to his friends and family that art history is not a journey towards the gutter, and secondly because he has to pay off his loans. Peter is appreciated by his colleagues. He works long and hard, takes responsibility for his work and shows that he can manage a great deal with few resources. Peter is offered the position of Head Collections at the age of 37, which he gladly accepts.

Sara feels a lot of pressure to be accepted by a good university. Both her parents studied in Amsterdam, and she has been prepared her entire life to follow in their footsteps. Sara wants to become an art historian and, like her aunt Deborah, works in the national museum in the capital. Sara is admitted to her first-choice university in Amsterdam, with a well-known professor as senior lecturer. She is doing well and is one of the best students of her year. Her parents offer to pay for her apartment in Amsterdam and all the additional costs of living. Sara feels no financial burden on her shoulders, and decides to do a graduate program at an American university. After her homecoming in the Netherlands she gets - through her aunt - the opportunity to do two unpaid internships at well-known Dutch museums, so Sara can gain some work experience. Money is no problem; her parents support her with love. Sara works hard and stands out. She is offered her first real job at the museum of her dreams, one of the top five institutions in the country. At thirty-five she gets the chance to become head of the twentieth-century division, which she grabs with both hands.

Ten years later, Peter wants to organize an exhibition about a local artist from the North of the country. This artist was strongly influenced by another, well-known Dutch artist, of which Peter has no work in his own collection. That is why he approaches the institute where Sara works and makes a formal loan request. Peter's museum has an excellent climate installation and a security installation, which is why Peter is confident that he can meet all official requirements. But there is one problem. Peter and Sara have never met before. Peter knows that there is much more chance to get hold of the loans when he knows the curator personally, but his institution cannot afford to send Peter to all conferences where he can meet the right people. Moreover, he estimates that Sara will have no interest whatsoever in talking to him. She works at one of the largest and most well-known institutions in the Netherlands, so she will be a better curator than he is, right?

In this example Peter has come to believe that Sara is a better curator than he is, because she works at a well-known art institution, with a collection that belongs to the 'canon of art'. But working at larger and better-known institutions does not necessarily make you better qualified. Sara had more opportunities, but she had comparable study results and a comparable number of years of work experience. You could even argue that Peter had more opportunities to showcase his creativity and become resilient, due to the financial challenges he faces in both his private life and business. There is a big chance that not only Peter thinks that Sara is the better of the two. Sara receives loan requests from around the world. Why would she spend her precious time on a small museum like that of Peter? The Louvre calls, and they want a work on loan in exchange for a work from their own collection. She better spend her timely wisely.

The above case is a fictitious one, not based on facts. But I have heard many similar stories from the field and my environment, and I have also witnessed similar situations. I am convinced that there is a strict hierarchy between museums, from the top ten to the little ones at the bottom of the ladder. We believe that some art is better than others - and that is why we have something that we call the 'canon of art' - and we have come to believe that working at an art institution that manages a part of this canon makes us a better curator. The aura of the institute shines its light over the people who work there. We believe that our value is equal to the value we assign to the institute we work for. This belief has a serious effect on the way our loan system dysfunctions today. It is a belief that does not correspond to reality and that must be rejected. Personal interests may no longer predominate. Curators of museums financed by public money should no longer see the art objects in their management as their property. Curators look too little at the general interest, but from their own interests. In other words, there is systematic lending with a hidden agenda: an exchange agenda. You lend me this, then I lend you that, is the creed. As a result, smaller museums with fewer leading collections will have fewer opportunities to borrow works from large collections. The taxpayer is pulling the short straw.

What Do We Need?
In order to democratize our loan system, we no longer have to rely on connections to obtain loans. Studies show time and time again that people have the natural tendency to make connections with people who resemble themselves: the same sex, social class, orientation, race, etc. The current loan system leads undisputedly to decisions based on prejudices instead of facts. A loan request must no longer be assessed on the 'alleged quality of the exhibition concept' or the quality of the collection of the receiving institute. Quality is a criterion that in itself already promotes favor. Getting loans on the basis of connections means that people who are outside the social circle of the lenders are not able to make the best possible exhibition for their audience. Audiences that are not only entitled to good exhibitions - regardless of their place of residence, gender, race, etc. - but also because they will be the ones responsible for the survival of the museum as a phenomenon. When museums are not supported by a larger group of people, a large group of museums will find it very difficult to survive, and our heritage will come under pressure.

An internet platform, supported by tax money, for all art museums worldwide is necessary for a new approach to loan traffic. Open data offers museums the opportunity to connect connection management systems relatively easily, so that it is clear what each museum has in their collection and whether the works are fit to travel. Moreover, in this way, the factual data - such as climate control and security level - can be easily viewed from any museum concerned and used as a basis for approving or rejecting a loan request. But in addition to a practical solution, I also advocate a new attitude of decision-makers - curators, conservators and directors - in relation to loan traffic. An open attitude towards loan requests, whereby we grant each other loans without a hidden agenda.