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Mobilizing Coaccession(tm)

Dr. Mark White

Editor’s note: Additional information about Dr. White’s proposal for alternative models of institutional ownership can be found on his blog http://coaccession.blogspot.com/. This piece lays out the basics of the concept in his own words. It should also be noted that this is a personal essay, and the concepts therein belong solely to Mr. White, and do not represent Chicago Art Magazine editorial.

Cloud Gate (The Bean) from the east

Artists use insight and talent creatively to transform ordinary materials into cultural treasures.  Collectors’ taste and desire then complements that cultural value with financial value, giving artworks the potential to employ substantial social resources.  Society today, though, realizes only a small fraction of that financial potential artworks have to put people, tools and materials to work.  Museums and others that hold artwork collections for their cultural value have had no really effective tool to hold on to an artwork’s cultural value while simultaneously mobilizing its financial value to better fulfill museum and other missions.  Coaccession(tm) changes that.

Coaccession lets a museum have its Monet and money, too.  It works by letting a museum and a collector share ownership of an artwork.  The museum owns the bulk of the artwork’s cultural value by owning all rights to it — including exhibition, research and conservation — except the right of possession, which it sells separately.  The collector owns the bulk of the artwork’s financial value by owning that right of possession that the museum sells.  The collector possesses the artwork when the museum does not actively exercise any of its cultural rights — when the artwork would just be in storage anyway.  With the money from selling the right of possession, the museum better fulfills its mission, and can still exhibit, research and conserve the artwork at the times that it chooses.  Collectors can resell the right of possession and museums can still exercise their cultural rights with new buyers.

Most museums store most of their artworks most of the time.  In fact, finding storage space for growing collections often presents problems.  Donors mostly gift artworks, not endowments for storage and other operations.  With Coaccession, though, the gift artwork comes with its own endowment.  Better yet, it comes with its own storage, too, since collectors will possess it and privately display it to family, friends, clients, students, parishioners, or other visitors to the private place where the collector chooses to safely keep and insure it.  Since the museum gets free storage, the artwork’s endowment can go to the people and programs that best increase the artwork’s cultural value to the community.  The collector is happy, because increasing the artwork’s cultural value increases its financial value as well.  The museum is happy, too, because cultural value is all it cares about, and it has money for exhibitions, research, conservation and associated programs.

This shared ownership concept came to me when thinking about the fights some archaeologists have with collectors.  These archaeologists want to ban private antiquities collections to stop looting.  Collectors don’t want looted antiquities, but they do want to possess antiquities that legally satisfy their desire to express their taste.  Since archaeologists store most of their antiquities most of the time — a theme develops here — it seemed natural to me for archaeologists to sell the right of possession when finished with their initial research, while reserving the other rights they need for subsequent exhibitions, research and conservation.  To write an op-ed I looked for the name of this shared ownership method, and when I couldn’t find it despite my formidable research skills (I’m a finance PhD), the realization began dawning that I could name it myself and get a business method patent to guide its use.

Wheatstacks (End of Summer), 1890-91, Oil on canvas, 60x100cm, The Art Institute of Chicago

While most artworks, antiquities, and other valuable collectibles are in storage most of the time, most of the value in artworks, antiquities and other collectibles is on constant exhibition.  The public wants to see society’s truly iconic artworks, etc., any time the museums holding them are open.  Sadly, museums lacking money spend much too much time closed.  Can those iconic works and specimens help keep the doors open?  Of course!  Coaccession lets a museum have its Monet and money, too, and not many Monets spend much time in storage.  Monets do make a great store of value, though, and people seek safe places to store value they’ve created or saved.  As they keep gold in vaults, investors will want their Monets in museums.  And as commodity exchanges let investors buy and sell gold that never leaves a vault, art exchanges will let investors buy and sell interests in Coaccessioned artworks that never leave a museum.  Best of all, when your Monet investments go up in value, you know you’re stimulating artistry, not gold mining!  Call your broker and ask for 100 shares of a Haystack!!  Widows and orphans can depend on it staying right there in the Art Institute of Chicago, and it can’t ever go bankrupt like AT&T or GM.

Coaccession applies established legal and financial patterns in new ways that let our cultural guardians fully mobilize the resources in their collections.  At a time when museums and other collection holders are laying off people and cutting programs, transforming the financial value in their collections into income-producing assets can in many cases generate the funds to go beyond restoring cuts to expanding employment and programs.  At a time when bankruptcies from the Great Recession have battered values of income-producing assets, households want to diversity into stable, bankruptcy-proof stores of value.  Better they buy socially-responsible artwork shares than the gold coins and bars that stimulate gold mining.

Collection holders include federal, state, county and city governments, as well as school districts, park districts and publicly-owned museums.  Using the financial value in these collections to establish income-producing endowments can support artists and archeologists in their efforts to create cultural value and curators in their efforts to communicate that value.  An Illinois Arts Endowment could mobilize the state government’s cultural treasures to produce income to help restore, perhaps even expand, the Illinois Arts Council’s devastated budget.  A Chicago Arts Endowment could put traders to work letting you buy and sell shares in The Bean, and art historians to work advising you on your art portfolio beyond The Bean, as well as artists to work creating art.

Artworks can support the arts.  Coaccession lets collection holders and the public think about collections in very new ways.  Do you think your museum trustees and legislative representatives should waste all that financial potential by just keeping on doing things the same old way?  Let them know, and me, too.