An Economist at the Museum

We saw a magnificent art exhibit, The Impressionists in Paris, at the Folkwang Museum in Essen, Germany. It contained paintings from all over the world, including the National Galleries in both Washington and London, that showed views of Paris. My wife asked how they organize these exhibits – do they trade paintings, or what?

I don’t know the answer, but I can’t imagine that they trade – surely our National Gallery would have much more on offer than smaller museums like the Folkwang. If trading was standard, I don’t think a market would exist. So I assume the exhibiting museum pays. But how? Perhaps a percent of its gross – admission was $12/person, and it was very crowded. A fixed fee, sufficient to cover insurance, shipping and some profit for the owner? I would assume the latter, but I wonder how this market works? Or is there no single pattern?


They actually do trade a lot, exchanging favors through a network so it's not all 1:1 barter. It's complicated:

1. Shows often travel and museums will contribute to such a show for reasons that range from actual concern about the subject matter to raising the visibility of a piece of art that then can be traded in another show to raising the profile of the museum to something more like "do this and these guys do this and then those guys do this for you." Several party trades happen.

2. Costs of shipping and insurance, etc. are picked up.

3. Shows can influence collectors, increase donations - big issue there. So for example, donations solicited from collectors who have works that are made more valuable by a show. Or increased visibility helping convince a collector to sell to the museum or leave a bequest of art.

4. Pride and personal interests. If you have a piece that other museums want, then your curators end up going to that show at the other museums and there's a lot of personal negotiating. Everyone likes feeling wanted, even if it's because they want your Renoir. If a show becomes a big success, that reflects back on the people involved and that makes everyone more willing to trade as well.



The Green Bay Packers won a Renoir for a Milkwaukee museum last night.


To be fair, the Renoir bet was won, but it's just for a temporary loan of a couple of months. Still, congratulations to the Milwaukee Art Museum! (Another story on the new tradition of museums betting loans over the Superbowl can be found here:

Coincidentally, another blog post touching on this issue can be found here:

Although note that the kind of "blockbuster" exhibit discussed is done through commercial companies, which is a whole different exhibit than those many art collections host.

Additionally, smaller museums frequently have specialized collections or really well done exhibits as well, which can and do travel. Thematic shows based around a certain painter or era of object (Roman, Egyptian) may also involve reaching out to private collectors.

I have to admit, I'm a little shocked that you didn't think to write the AAM or a local museum to discuss this a bit further. There's a huge amount written on museums, but when you take into account the huge variety of loans, the kinds and sizes of museums, and international displays, this is a far more complex topic than assuming that smaller museums have nothing to offer, or that there must be a profit involved for loans to function.


Ian Kemmish

You look old enough to remember Tutankhamen fever in the 1970's. I'm sure the American papers were as full as the UK ones of how much it cost to host that exhibition.

On the other hand, I believe that the Georgian "Land of the Golden Fleece" exhibition in 2009-2010 was financed largely by voluntary contributions from visitors - at least it was when it came to the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge. The cultural value of such an exhibition to the lender seems obvious.

And finally, don't be too chauvinistic about small museums. The Fitzwilliam, for example., has an almost complete Egyptian book of the dead which has only been shown once since its discovery and whose pigments have therefore not faded at all. In terms of pulling visitors in, that's a valuable asset to lend to anyone.


It's also the case that most museums have a massive amount of art that they don't have on display at any given time. Lending them to others means that they can get works on loan that they otherwise would not have.

Barbara Marbell

This is from a student working on her Master's in Museum Sciences:

Here is a brief answer to the question:

Museum objects (not just paintings) are loaned for exhibitions and the circumstances vary on a case by case basis. Small museums that do not have as big of collections often create partnerships with larger museums to do temporary exhibits, and request to borrow objects even if they do not necessarily do a "trade". Often times a large museum curates an exhibit that is meant to be a traveling show that will go to multiple museums. For example, last year the American Museum of Natural History has curated an exhibit called "Extreme Mammals" that traveled to the Cal Academy, and then continued on to the San Diego Museum of Natural History. In other circumstances, large museums will loan objects to smaller museums when they are renovating. For example, the Orsay in Paris is currently under construction, so they loaned over 100 of their incredibly famous Impressionist pieces to the De Young Art Museum in San Francisco. Usually the museum that is borrowing the objects pays for insurance, traveling fees, cost of installation, etc, but they do not necessarily pay the museum they borrowed from a fixed fee. This is more of a recent trend as well...many museums are beginning to create collaborative partnerships to be able to borrow objects and host exhibits that they might not have been able to from their permanent collection.


Daniel Hamermesh

THANKS TO ALL!! I wrote this one not to demonstrate an economic point, as I usually do, but to learn something new. I did. Thanks again.

Dan Hamermesh

Mario Salvador

I'm the owner-founder of a beautiful stone age spoon artifacts, whose photos are available at my facebook account.
Can someone/anyone help me exhibit my artifacts. thanks, Mario Salvador

Karen Tyson


I, too, have read the labels that show where the paintings "live" and wondered about the economics of bringing them together.

Transportation and insurance are increasingly expensive, and blockbuster exhibits typically have corporate sponsors. Some objects are too fragile to travel at all. The explanation that paintings travel to make them more valuable makes sense.

I wonder whether there's a wealth effect of sorts. For example, Cleveland has only one Monet, and I'd imagine it's a major city attraction. If the National Gallery wants to get the Cleveland Monet into its blockbuster, it might have to "pay" Cleveland more than it would if Cleveland were as wealthy in Monets as DC.

Thanks to all for this interesting discussion.