JP Morgan Chase—the bank that’s at the center of the financial crisis, predatory lending scandal and recently reported charges of widespread foreclosure fraud—”plans to close the Asian Art’s line of credit as of Friday – in which case, the museum would lose $20 million that it put up in collateral.” [Aside: J.P. Morgan’s ties to the Third Reich]
As reported by Matier and Ross, “The Asian’s” board minutes show a balanced budget and record attendance in June 2009, but since then things have fallen off sharply (our intervention took place in August-September 2009).
Orientalism has its price
To make matters worse, former mayor Willie Brown reported in his column on sfgate earlier this year that billionaire Japanophile and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison offered the museum a $15 million donation, but the museum turned it down because . . . wait for it . . . he didn’t have an Asian name.
This is consistent with “The Asian’s” infamous official policy that no Asian American artists will be shown in the Asian Art Museum, which remained in effect until as recently as 2004*.
In both cases, neither Ellison nor Asian Americans were oriental enough to be included at “The Asian.”
[*Verified by members of museum management as well as the director of an Asian American arts non-profit who was employed by the museum at the time the policy was in effect].
The Choice: Relevance or Privilege?
The Asian Art Museum is a public institution whose collection is owned by the city and county of San Francisco. According to the city controller’s office, in fiscal 2010-2011 “The Asian” is budgeted to receive over 8 million of our tax dollars, to ostensibly serve the collective good of civil society.
This problem is that civic institutions such as this one are run by boards of trustees who are self-selected for their wealth and putative abilities to raise and manage money, rather than for their cultural stewardship.
The museums of the country are run by boards of trustees which are self-perpetuating. They’re there strictly because they’re wealthy and that is a dictatorship by a very small minority of the country over the rest of the country. — Carl Andre
Along with this comes a pervasive and largely unquestioned marketplace ideology, culture as consumption and corporatism.
There’s an inherent conflict between the public, non-profit cultural mission of a museum versus a commercial dogma that only answers to the financial bottom line. As veteran museum insider Robert Janes puts it, museums today face a choice between relevance or privilege:
The symptoms of this dysfunction pervade the museum industry: the “edifice complex” (recruiting all-world architects to design spectacular buildings, often resulting in increased operating costs), blockbuster mentality (e.g. Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile, Lord It’s the Samurai, etc.), a top-down catering to a small corporate elite with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo (including in this case, tired old notions of what it means to be Asian: timeless, idealized Other), and last but not least, societal indifference.
The problem, as Janes points out, is that short-term, market-driven thinking and private sector values run counter to serving the long-term relevance and sustainability of an institution that exists to serve the cultural health and well-being of its public communities.
The present “Asian Crisis” bears this out as a prime example of the culmination of a trajectory of marketplace dysfunction at the expense of relevance.
Will the mayor’s office hold them accountable?