Letting the Art Out

I don’t know anything about art, really, but I do enjoy Renée Magritte (memorably described to me by an art critic friend as a “painter for people who don’t like art”) and am always glad when I see his work on the wall of a museum. Meanwhile, it took a trip to Berlin for someone to mention to me that the Museum of Modern Art in New York has taken the excellent step of putting its complete collection, including works that aren’t on display, online in a searchable database. So I did a quick search for Magritte and—behold—several works I’ve never seen before even though I’ve been to MOMA three times since its renovation:

You can even go here and listen to a brief talk about the painting. Very cool.

My only critique is that given the relatively low resolution of these files it would be easy for the museum to release these images on a Creative Commons license without needing to worry about cannibalizing the market for prints. If you think about a future world in which all museums are putting their collections online, the best outcome would be for innovative people (perhaps affiliated with existing institutions or perhaps not) to be able to take these imagines and do things with them. Create “virtual exhibits” of different kinds mixing and matching works from different sources the way is currently done (with great care and at great expense) with traveling shows.

To make a policy point, all this is a great example of the consumer surplus issues at stake in getting the various aspects of this right. Creating a world in which a kid in Boise or Bangalore or Bangkok or Bethlehem and an interest in art has all the world’s most important paintings at his fingertips is going to have only a tiny impact on measured economic output. But the welfare gains of vastly expanding the horizons of culture available to people around the world are nonetheless substantial.