The Bead Museum in Glendale AZ shut its doors today. It did so, according to a posting on the AZ Commission on the Arts website, because of significant decrease in contributed income over the last several years due to the Great Recession. The Bead Museum was unique in the world: the only facility dedicated to the study and exhibition of beads. The collection included beads as old as 20,000 years, chronicling for scholars and the general public the “exploration of world culture through beads.” Lest you think this is a frivolous endeavor, consider that beads were the currency with which Manhattan was bought and sold; beads have historical, cultural, and aesthetic value.
That the Bead Museum closed is an example of market failure, not in the sense that a monopoly is a market failure, but rather a failure of the market to recognize value. If the market is the only arbiter of what is important in our culture, then cultural gems (pun intended) like the Bead Museum are doomed to similar failures. At the risk of repeating earlier posts, I’ll re-iterate that government subsidy is one viable way to remedy such failures. Yet, given pressures on public budgets, direct government subsidies are shrinking. The problem for the Bead Museum and other – especially small – arts organizations, is that as those subsidies shrink simultaneous with reduced private sector contributions. Small cultural organizations feel the hit most acutely. Are there other models? Oregon has a tax credit program, other states have arts and/or culture license plates, Arizona has an arts trust fund – but even that is not secure as the governor picks away at its endowment eight percentage points at a time. Maybe the arts and cultural community can explore some other models – bridge loans, cultural bond issuances (hey it works for sports), public/private institutional structures, and so on.
I titled this post “The Broken String” because when I read about the Bead Museum closing, I imagined a string of beads breaking and the thousands of beads, large and small, colorful and not, bouncing and skittering across the floor. Fortunately, there is an institution that will catch the beads; the entire collection is going to the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, a museum of folk art and craft. While the Mingei does not have the specificity of focus of the Bead Museum, it is gratifying to know that the collection will remain available to scholars. The people of Glendale and the Phoenix metro area, however, are not so lucky. Yes, they can see the Cardinals play football or the Diamondbacks play baseball (in a publicly financed stadium), but they won’t have the opportunity to access the rich history of beads and beadmaking ever again.