Make no mistake, I am excited that the Eakins painting is remaining in the care of the the Philadelphia Museum. By any measure, the Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins is an amazing acquisition, one of which any Museum or city would be proud.
However, there are other issues than Jefferson, Philadelphia and Thomas Eakins. There are ramifications for the field of philanthropy as a whole in this case. In the media, the prospect of losing the Eakins was framed as the equivalent to a natural disaster for the art and history communities in Philadelphia. What is troubling in the whole affair is that the museum had to tap a crisis-psychology across its cross-channel fundraising campaign (View Pages). As successful, creative and unique as this approach to marketing and fundraising is, there exists a real possibility that the public response may also be unique.
If Museums are able to garner such philanthropy around the maintenance of a single piece of art in crisis, it is disheartening to ponder how cultural institutions (in general) have such difficulty with ongoing fundraising. Last October, Bloomberg noted the recent trend of declining funding for the arts (-10.6% between 2005 and 2006). Further, in today's Wall Street Journal there is an article by Robert Hughes entitled "Firms Funding Arts Seek a Return". Echoing the Bloomberg report, Hughes also notes that donations to performing arts organizations have declined by 25% since 2000. From Hughes' perspective, this decline is meaningful because it forces Museums to offer greater visibility, benefits and premiums in exchange for support from top institutional donors. He labels this philanthropy "transactional".
The bottom line is that the cultural sector is having to find ever more market-driven angles for supporting their institutions. This raises serious questions of how institutions consider fundraising initiatives that the public might value. Because, let's face it, Museums need lights, guards and heat. These, however, are not great or flashy marketing causes.
In the final analysis, it is disingenuous that the arts are funded generously in support of "keeping works" but not to keep these same works cleaned, guarded and open to the public. I certainly hope that the Philadelphia Museum is able to build on the Eakins success (both symbolic and economic) by increasing its visitorship and Membership roles. That is, that the interest and support that the Gross Clinic has attracted will be stewarded to create deep and meaningful relationships with the public. This is a great opportunity to do it. The first challenge was keeping the important work, the next is remaining important.