Collecting the present

August 31 2015

Image of Collecting the present

Picture: fivethirtyeight

The statistics and polling site has an interesting article on the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which has recently put online its museum database (works painted, collection number, year made, year acquired, that kind of thing).

The above chart shows how, over time, the museum has begun to acquire younger and younger works. Or, as the 538 article says:

The [graph] shows the paintings MoMA has added to its collection each year and when the additions were painted. The red regression line shows the “modernizing” of MoMA’s collection — how quickly the museum has moved toward acquiring recent paintings.

MoMA’s official mission is to aid the understanding and enjoyment of “the art of our time.” And judging by its acquisitions, it’s succeeding. It has established a solid body of works from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and occasionally still reaches back to acquire something older. But its focus is new work. As you can see from the thick blanket of points at the frontier of the scatter plot, much of its yearly acquisitions are of recent pieces — the art of our time.

I suspect Moma isn't the only gallery whose collecting patterns lean increasingly towards the present. 'We must buy these great works now', say the acquisitions committees, 'because if we don't then...'

Then what? They might get even more expensive? Or the artists might make another? Or another series? There is no shortage of contemporary works, great or not.

And then we come to the question of price. The other useful statistics to look at, given the boom in contemporary art prices, are the relative prices per work, and how that changes in regard to acquisition date. In other words, does it make sense these days for museums to buy works so soon after the date of creation, at the moment of greatest hype and thus price - and before their artistic reputation has really been tested by time. Or is it better to wait?

At the moment, because we're so busy chasing our tails in the contemporary art market, prices do indeed seem to rise and rise. Thus, the sooner you can get 'in' on an artist the better. But such a policy assumes that the present is some kind of artistic golden age. I'm not sure it'll seem that way in 50 years time.

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