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Not on View

Updated: Oct 29, 2021

Are museums becoming cemeteries of art?

Museums were started so that art could be seen by the public instead of being in private collections. What if I told you that a large amount of art owned by museums is in storage? Most of Georgia O'Keeffe's work is in storage. Nearly half of Pablo Picasso's oil paintings are not on view. And why is that? In this post, I will deal with unmasking museums. Shown here: Child in a Straw Hat by Mary Cassatt. Currently in storage at the National Gallery of Art.

painting by Mary Cassatt
Mary Cassatt, Child in a Straw Hat

First argument why so many works of art are not on display is simply lack of space. If that is the case, why do major museums in renovating their spaces give architects so much power in creating vast empty spaces that lead into small cramped galleries? I would rather see more art than pay homage to a space. Give me more Schiele and a more sensible setting for displaying art. Shown here Dancer by Egon Schiele. Currently in storage at the National Gallery of Art.

Drawing by Egor Schiele
Egor Schiele, The Dancer

Which art you end up seeing in museums depends largely on its curators. If you like a Paul Cezanne or Claude Monet, you are in luck as these works tend not to be in storage. If you on the other hand like Mark Rothko, you are out of luck. 90% of his works are in storage. Shown here No. 13 by Rothko. Metropolitan Museum collection. Not on view.

painting by Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko, No. 13 (White, Red on Yellow)

Art works donated to large museums by artists, collectors and benefactors tend to remain in storage while works purchased are more often on display. So consider donating the works to smaller museums where there is a better chance that they will be on display for all of us to enjoy. Shown here a work by Georgia O’Keeffe Brooklyn Museum collection in storage.

Museums are not allowed to sell works they have in storage. If they were allowed to sell to other institutions a very tiny percentage of what they have in storage, they could endow free admission forever. Shown here: Seated Woman by Pablo Picasso MoMA collection not on view.

painting by Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso, Seated Woman

Roughly 5% of collections that museums own are displayed. The works displayed are usually rotated among the most culturally important works they have. Less significant or niche works may never leave the temperature-controlled, darkened and carefully organized storage except to be conserved. Untitled by Alexander Calder Tate collection not on view.

sculpture by Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder, Untitled

The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in Iran has a fabulous collection of Western Art but it is not on view since Western Art is considerate degenerate. They sometimes lend some of the works to other institutions like Jackson Pollock’s most famous work, Mural on Red Indian Ground. Other work that depicts nudity or has homoerotic overtones, like Bacon’s Two Figures Lying on a Bed With Attendants never see the light of day.

painting by Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock, Mural on Red Indian Ground
triptych by Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon, Two Figures Lying on a Bed With Attendants

Numbers don’t lie. The Tate shows about 20% of its permanent collection. The Louvre shows 8%, the Guggenheim a low 3%. Yes, part of their collections include works that are fragile and works that are good for research only but it does not justify the staggering volume they keep hidden from the public. Art is alive only when it is on view. Shown here a Canaletto Met collection not on view.

painting by Canaletto
Canaletto, Santa Maria della Salute

It is very humbling to be an artist. To realize that even if you make it as an artist, your work may end up in a museum’s storage area, perhaps never to be seen by the public again, is very daunting. But artists will continue to create because art matters especially in our darkest moments. Let’s hope museums will stop being cemeteries of art.


The statistics in this blog were taken from the Quartz survey, 2016. The numbers might have changed slightly since then but it is still an accurate survey of the staggering art that is not on display in museums.