"Ownership": Whether Art or Non-profits Is it Really All That Bad?


Just got home from a talk at the Menil Museum that was so riveting I felt compelled to further discuss it here. Yes, I”m THAT nerd that runs home to write dissertations on causal roundtables….well….perhaps the nerdiness actually started when I sat there and took copious notes but that”s neither here nor there.

But anyway, the discussion dealt with the concept of “ownership” within the art space. Now, now, give me time..I”m going to tie this into non-profits at the end. Promise. So the talk began with commentary on the somewhat precarious times for ancient art. You have countries holding claim to various ancient works, demanding that they be expatriated and organizations essentially “deputizing” owners. And the current state of the law is so out of flux with reality that these works are being given to communities, even countries, that conceptually did not exist during the piece”s inception. More importantly, you have the question of “highest and best use” (or as Oprah would say, is it “living its best life”). Is an African artifact meeting its highest and best use if a patron, through ownership, places it in their home? Does an Aztec artifact meet its highest and best use if the Mexican government claims ownership and refuses to let it leave Mexican borders for all to partake of?


Property v. Ownership; Object v. Thing

The discussion was kicked off by a very intriguing anthropology perspective. The gentleman first suggested that we differentiate between property and ownership. Property is not a person”s relationship with an object, it is their relationship with other people in relation to a thing. So, when you”re talking about ownership its a misnomer to discuss “property” as being owned by someone. The concept of ownership is much broader than property. If something”s my “property”, the implicit understanding is that it is mine to the exclusion of  others. Whereas, “ownership” denotes the contrary; belonging and connecting. Similarly, the notion of “object” relays the notion property. I can own an “object”.  And “things” can possibly be an object. But can you really, by default, own a “thing”? And is it appropriate to say that someone owns a “thing” that other people have an interest in; such as art? Whether that interest  be creating it, prepping it, or even seeing it? Agree or not…thinking of it that way blew my mind.


Ownership in Other Industries

The next part of the program was  tie-in”s made to other industries.  There was a discussion on the developments in bio-medicine. How we see an increasing infestation of the “mine” complex with people patenting, and claiming ownership of, various genomes and biological matter; at times extracted from people who don”t even know it. But it was posited that while this is happening, there has also been a push for sharing. Opening resources and allowing them to be best utilized by everyone from the science teacher to Pfizer. The open source software movement was also discussed. Developers are increasingly shirking away from their legal entitlements to ownership and allowing others to use their code freely. Some developers ask for attribution, some ask for attribution and that other developers using the code continue to allow their software to be open as well. It was suggested that perhaps this could be a new type of “ownership”. Allowing people to have attribution (I would say an “ego”  type ownership) rather than accepting the statutory (or “legal” type ownership). At one point, the idea was tossed around that there be a type of “open source” concept for works of art…that”s when the wheels in my head started to move.


My Misgivings

So, I clearly had a couple of questions. But you know how it is when the program has run long, and the chorus of sighs start up. I didn”t want to be that person that kept everyone even a second longer. But there are some mis-givings I had about the ideas presented:

  • There seems to be a very real difference between IP and art. With IP, you”re seeking continued innovation as well as a reward for being first. Selfish perhaps, but effective. Whereas with art, particularly ancient art, you don”t have this same concern.  I would argue that it makes more sense for the curator than the scientist   to act on the behalf of the public. But as evidenced by this article even that”s up for debate.


  • And speaking of innovation, one genesis of intellectual property seems to be just that. I am more likely to create a more  innovative thing  if I know that I will be able to benefit exclusively from it. I am more likely to create a better quality thing  if I stand to exclusively make money off of it. My sculpture is less likely to be defaced because of the legal rights I have in it. In fact, morally someone wouldn”t deface it because  its mine.

So my thought was, doesn”t the fact that someone owns a work of art; truly has a stake in it help? One could argue that personal interests is what drives the illicit market. But at the same time, if those patrons and countries did not stand to gain “ownership” would they continue to dig, online casino australia or allow digging, and discover artifacts as they do? If I the patron want that Moroccan mural am I not going to push and fund its restoration?  Would a communal or open source type ownership create the same result? Even if the piece wasn”t “sexy” enough, was controversial, the funding couldn”t be gathered by everyone, or there was just general apathy?  Is it then relegated to stay in the ground? Perhaps I”m making a logical leap, but wouldn”t the primary driver seem to stem back to someone owning the piece. Having a stake and vested interest. So to go back, that african artifact may not be meeting its highest and best use sitting on a Victorian mantel. But….there is a use. Its not sitting in the ground unbeknownst to all.  And who knows, that piece just may end up in  museum at some point. Isn”t that a good thing?


So What the Hell Does This Have to do With Non-profits Erin?

Valid question. In connecting the thoughts, I harkened back the the inception of non-profits. Organizations created to provide services that the government could not or did not have the capacity to offer. Organizations that took “ownership” over a particular space be it homelessness, poverty, abuse, lack of education, etc.

You hear so many people moan about the state of non-profits. Some calling for  significant cuts, some calling for  obliteration. But I can”t help but wonder, if, way back when, there hadn”t been this proliferation of entities owned by someone else would our public services be the better or the worse for it? What if people hadn”t indulged in “ownership” by starting their organization instead of: i.  joining the government or ii. all working together?

Now take it even further. Look at all the different entities that are being created in the non-profit space now. Many of which allow for more flexibility and more “ownership”. Is this a bad thing? Though for a charitable purpose, does the infusion of more ownership necessarily mean its bad? Sure, there may be more of a propensity for founders to run their organizations to the detriment of the public. But don”t you have to take the good with the bad? Kinda the same as with that african artifact?  Moreover, does the somewhat selfish notion that that organization will be their legacy not drive people to do better, go further and help more?

At the end of the day, is the problem really ownership or collaboration?

Whew. I”m done. Didn”t think I”d be able to tie that in did ya? But, in all honesty I would be really interested to get people”s thoughts on this. Both from an art and  non-profit perspective. Particularly with the non-profit.