For museums to make the ‘digital shift’, does the art/artefact market itself have to change?

Posted on March 11, 2012

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Seb Chan has just written a great post positing the idea that museums will not truly begin to incorporate the digital into their core operations and institutional DNA until they have significant born digital collections. He writes:

Born-digital no longer requires ‘buildings’ and that’s when things becomes interesting.

He’s right – it is interesting. However, I think it is only scratching the surface of the question, because in order for most museums to view born-digital as being significant for collection, the very art/artefact market likely needs to change. (Note: I am mostly thinking through this issue with the art market in mind.)

Somaya, a commenter on Seb’s post, writes:

Born digital suffers from both impermanence and the ability to be everywhere all at once. Either there is only one copy (which is lost easily) or millions that are everywhere and likely to turn up in collections multiple times (not a good approach of every organisation is spending their resources preserving the same thing).

Until there is a basic shift in fully embracing digital collecting plus preservation, management and provision of access – through policies and strategic directions of these organisations – digital will slip to the side of other more traditional collecting workflows.

Her point, that the born-digital artefact is both impermanent and able to be everywhere at once, seems to run completely counter to the way art markets create value, with their emphasis on rarity, longevity and physicality (and therefore, good prospects for return on investment). A 2008 article from the NYTimes on the sale of a version of the Magna Carta exemplifies this sentiment.

Just when digital reproduction makes it possible to create a “Rembrandt” good enough to fool the eye, the “real” Rembrandt becomes more expensive than ever. Why? Because the same free flow that makes information cheap and reproducible helps us treasure the sight of information that is not. A story gains power from its attachment, however tenuous, to a physical object. The object gains power from the story. The abstract version may flash by on a screen, but the worn parchment and the fading ink make us pause. The extreme of scarcity is intensified by the extreme of ubiquity.

The object, thus, potentially could become more valuable for museums in the short term, and in fact until museums begin to build the digital into core operations and value. There could be both a backlash against the potentially ubiquitous nature of born-digital art/design/architecture etc, and an urge to cling on to what museums have that is different from that which is available everywhere else online, particularly because there is a known and quantifiable value that can be placed on objects in a way that has not yet (to my knowledge) been defined for born-digital artefacts.

Beyond this however, museum collections are undoubtedly influenced by the art market and the interests of private collectors, whose willingness to spend money on acquiring works of art by particular artists will often drive the reputations and careers of those artists (and therefore make them valuable for museums, too, to collect). Such a system is thus a kind of informalised method for vetting those works or artists that a museum should seek to acquire, because those objects (should) have a more likely ROI.

This article explaining the art market by James Panero captures this idea:

The art market has a unique talent for promoting art about the market. Since exhibition history enhances value, the collectors of what we might call “market art” have a vested interest in seeing their work take up space in traditional public collections. They often have the financial leverage to make it happen. In this way, the hedge-fund collector Steven A. Cohen could place Damien Hirst’s shark tank on temporary loan at the Metropolitan Museum. The oversized trinkets of Jeff Koons start appearing at the same time in the museum’s rooftop gallery.

Curators defend such expensive contemporary work as relevant to the commercialism of the age: the market gives meaning to the art.

A quote from Leo Steinberg in the article is also useful.

Art is not, after all, what we thought it was; in the broadest sense it is hard cash. The whole of art, its growing tip included, is assimilated to familiar values. Another decade, and we shall have mutual funds based on securities in the form of pictures held in bank vaults.

What we don’t yet have, then, is the way for equating born-digital art/artefacts with hard cash, and a proven sale/resale history to demonstrate ROI.

In some ways, I am sure this cannot be far away. In the Internet age, information is becoming valuable in ways that were previously unimaginable. The Real Time Report recently reported that estimates put the market value of a Facebook user at between $89-$118. Here, the seemingly intangible has tangible or real value. What the art market, and museums, haven’t yet done is find ways to assess/communicate the intrinsic value of born-digital materials. We don’t yet know what the ROI is, either for private collectors or institutional ones.

And there’s the rub. While Seb is probably right, and it’s not until institutions hold substantial born-digital collections that they are likely to build digital into core museum practice, it might not be until the art/artefact markets begin to intrinsically value born-digital artefacts that they will become a collecting priority.

What do you think?

Posted in: Ideas, Museums