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The State and the Art


Museums have undergone radical changes over the last three decades. They target much larger audiences now than they once did. Behind the scenes, their governance, as well as their management underwent major changes, as well. Museums, on the one hand, are centers of artistic excellence and guardians of valuable heritage. They collect, preserve, and display Rembrandt’s Night Watch, the Rosetta Stone, and Andy Warhol’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe. On the other hand, they measure, audit, and improve their performance and impact, they focus on cultural participation for all layers in society, and they become cultural entrepreneurs. In other words, museums have adopted many business-like management tools.


This development fits in a wider context: from the 1980s onward, the entire public sector underwent similar changes. Governments across the globe have intensively reformed their public sectors during the last three decades, and they continue to do so. Many of these reforms are informed by New Public Management (NPM) ideas: increasing efficiency and value for money, agency decentralization, and introducing an entrepreneurial spirit in the public sector. In this spirit, national and local governments have privatized many museums and theaters. Artistic freedom and the absence of politics in funding decisions were additional reasons to privatize museums. Art funding decisions are also mostly taken at arm’s length of government, for example, in case of the Dutch Raad voor Cultuur, the British Arts Council, and the American National Endowment for the Arts. These organizations should be able to base their funding decisions on experts judging artistic quality or innovative value.


But parts of the NPM doctrine conflict with the autonomization of museums. Politicians have begun to demand results from their ‘investments’ in arts . Increasingly, politicians require museums and other cultural organizations to give an account of their artistic impact, economic value, or contribution to social cohesion. This development shows how governments, somehow, try to remain in control of the autonomous arts’ outputs.


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