Treasures in the Basement? An Analysis of Collection Utilization in Art Museums

by Ann Stone

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Surveys indicate that 72 percent of U.S. museum artworks reside in storage facilities. Experts argue that keeping many of these works in storage is not advancing the museums' missions and, additionally, that maintaining artworks in storage is costly. This study investigates four questions: (1) what factors explain the large proportion of museum artworks in storage? (2) What are the options for reducing storage and/or increasing the utilization of stored artworks? (3) What are the constraints and opportunities associated with the different options? And (4) what policies contribute to current levels of collection storage and utilization, and what policies would encourage change? In answering the second question, the study explores several strategies, including reducing the size of a collection, increasing exhibition space for displaying the collection, sharing the collection with other institutions, and increasing access to objects in the collection. The author concludes with a discussion of policy issues for the museum industry to address in order to improve collection utilization in art museums.

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