When discussing difficult political or economic issues, and many exist as concerns the art world, I often try to listen as much as I can to my “opponent” so that I can fully understand her or his perspective before I mischaracterize their positions in my own arguments. I find many common points and misunderstandings on the part of, ahem, “opponents.” From my perspective, it often seems that they rely on images for their arguments as opposed to facts.
One such image is that the government is a trustworthy, neutral arbiter that acts in the public interest. When prices go too high, or it seems like there is a problem in an industry, many call for government to take a stronger role in managing the focus of the discontent.
Unfortunately for utopians, facts usually dispel this image. Since the beginning of time, whether in a democracy or not, government entities have been twisted to do the bidding of special interests and executives. This happens in the private sector as well, but at least there’s an excuse in that case, for private CEOs do not work specifically for the public by contract. Rather, they work for shareholders. What seems like excessive compensation for executives in the private sector are justified by any number of reasons: the executives are more likely to take innovative risks when they are insulated by golden parachutes (and the company decided it was worth the risk the executive would just give up in order to beat its competitors), the pyramid below is widening and to maintain proper incentives the top has to be raised, and so on.
In the public sector, somehow, things are just supposed to be different. As the image is perceived, not-for-profit motives supposedly take precedence so that executives are not so lavishly compensated and governance, appropriately insulated from dollar signs, will be commensurately superior. The Smithsonian Institution’s recent experience in the matter of Lawrence M. Small is instructive. Perhaps worse has been the art world’s round condemnation of Alice Walton’s crusade to create the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art ( I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait! ).
Here comes the news that there is to be more turnover at the Smithsonian Institution. Many must expect that SI is still consciously pursuing perfection. This is, in itself, not a problem, for even in competitive markets, firms aspire to complete domination. The problem lay in believing that such perfection is attainable. So long as humans, mortal, flippant, prideful, humans are involved — the path to perfection will be paved with good intentions.