A Means to an End: Understanding the Operational Value of Contemporary Art

If you think that the contemporary art gold rush is relegated to big city museums just because the Met (among others) is scrambling to beef up its collection, think again. Regional museums are also working to expand their footholds as well.

Take the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville (MOCA). Not long ago, it received an impressive haul of contemporary work totaling $5.8 million that would make any museum director dance like Fred Astaire in 1933's Flying Down to Rio. 

What's more, when you dig through the accompanying press release, you get a good idea about why the accumulation of contemporary art is so important at an operational level. 

But before we look at that part, let's first examine the mechanics of the gift itself, shall we?

First off, the donor. That would be Maria Cox. She's been a MOCA Trustee for 12 years. She and her late husband began collecting contemporary art in the 1970s—back when contemporary art was really contemporary—and in intervening decades amassed a collection "any institution would have welcomed," according to MOCA Acting Director Ben Thompson.

And so the gift, which represents an acceleration of a planned bequest set in motion with the Coxes’ 2004 gift of 48 works, includes works by Joan Mitchell, Philip Guston, Joel Shapiro, Frank Stella, Keith Haring, Malcolm Morley, Jasper Johns, and more.

All of which brings to why the gift could prove so valuable to the MOCA.

Don't get us wrong, it's a major coup from an acquisitions standpoint. Contemporary art is all the rage, and when museums receive prominent pieces, it's certainly a good thing. But what comes next?

(In this sense, the acquisition of contemporary art reminds us of the final scene in The Graduate. As you may recall, Dustin Hoffman's Ben Braddock crashes Elaine's wedding. They run off and hop on a city bus. But their excitement quickly dims and they're left wondering, "Now what?")

In the case of MOCA, there are a few end goals in mind.

First, and most obviously, the haul will strengthen and increase the value of its permanent collection and give the community access to "works that they wouldn’t previously have had access to" (to quote Thompson).

Then there is—and we're quoting Thompson yet again here—the "scholarly and educational value that comes from having direct access to original artworks." The museum is MOCA a cultural institute of the University of North Florida, and the university is currently looking forward to educational opportunities presented by the Cox collection

Thompson also hopes the collection will make Jacksonville more of draw for contemporary art. Given breadth of the museum's collection and the fact that contemporary art donors like Cox certainly don't discriminate based on an institution's size and location, that isn't an unrealistic aspiration.