Clean House to Survive? Museums Confront Their Crowded Basements

Originally posted on by Robin Pogrebin

Fueled by philanthropic zeal, lucrative tax deductions and the prestige of seeing their works in esteemed settings, wealthy art owners have for decades given museums everything from their Rembrandts to their bedroom slippers.

It all had to go somewhere. So now, many American museums are bulging with stuff — so much stuff that some house thousands of objects that have never been displayed but are preserved, at considerable cost, in climate-controlled storage spaces.

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At the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: ashtrays, cocktail napkins, wine glasses. At the Indianapolis Art Museum: doilies, neckties and women’s underwear.

In storage at the Brooklyn Museum: a roomful of home décor textiles, a full-size Rockefeller Center elevator and a trove of fake old master paintings the museum is barred from unloading.

Some collections have grown tenfold in the past 50 years. Most museums display only a fraction of the works they own, in large part because so many are prints and drawings that can only sparingly be shown because of light sensitivity.

“There is this inevitable march where you have to build more storage, more storage, more storage,” said Charles L. Venable, the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields. “I don’t think it’s sustainable.”

His museum was so jammed with undisplayed artwork that it was about to spend about $14 million to double its storage space until he abruptly canceled the plan.

Instead, it embarked on an ambitious effort to rank each of the 54,000 items in its collection with letter grades. Twenty percent of the items received a D, making them ripe to be sold or given to another institution.