Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Gladwell, Edvard Munch and Empty Museums

After consuming any Malcolm Gladwell article, book, quote, thought and interview, I find myself convinced that his argument is simply the way it is. I find his writing is compelling and convincing. So much so that if he were writing about why its good to drink 3 quarts of motor oil daily, I would have a tall glass of Castrol in my hands before I even finished reading. I also need about 2 hours after reading to follow every thought and idea that comes to me. Yesterday's article about NBA Franchises, their owners and Van Gogh paintings was no exception. In the interest of validating the mental energy used yesterday, I give to you my post-Gladwell thoughts.

All of the NBA's majority owners, with the exception of Michael Jordan, earned their money doing something entirely unrelated to basketball. This means that they are experts in whatever they did (most commonly running business that grew to have enormous value) before becoming owners. Thus, they own their teams like they've owned anything else in the past. With the exception of Michael Jordan. Jordan tends to be the owner who "can't get it right". This would require further analysis, but chances are he isn't doing it wrong, he's just owning from a completely unique perspective. I personally hope he continues to do it his way and mops the floor with all the accountants and micro-finance geeks, once the Heat have banked about 5 titles of course.

Tying this thought back into the comparison of NBA franchises to fine art, I would imagine that 95% of fine art collectors are not artists and that wealthy artists own art differently than non artists own art. I bet Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Anish Kapoor and Jasper Johns have an entirely different philosophy about buying art than Warren Buffet, Paul Allen, Howard Schultz or Bill Gates do. Its probably not even a stretch to think that the artists actually decide the art they buy while the wealthy simply hire someone to buy art for them. Apply that thought back to the NBA and I think it starts to illuminate more nuances with the state of the league and the lockout.

Extending the metaphor to NBA teams being museums, collections of art, lead me to a new set of thoughts about the lockout. Imagine Prokorov owns The Scream by Munch, a Monet, 3 or 4 other expressionists, and a handful of paintings by painters you've never heard of. People obviously come to his museum because he has The Scream. Everyone wants to see that painting. Its not quite worth it for everyone to pay 90 bucks to come see that painting, but since he has a Monet and a couple other expressionist paintings hanging nearby, its worth the cost of admission. Bottom line is, you want a signature piece of art but you also can't have just one piece of art hanging in your museum. The collection has to be rounded out.

Most museums loan art to other museums for special exhibits, events, the heck of it. I believe there is usually a fee for acquiring some piece of art from another museum. This is how they make money. they invest in art hoping that people want to come see it at their museum and also that some other museum might want to borrow it at some point. The right investment can pay for itself 10 times over the course of a couple decades. Now back to Prokorov's collection. Which paintings is Prokorov most likely to be willing to loan out? He could probably make a killing of loaning The Scream, but then his museum is empty. So he's probably going to try and pawn off some of the expressionists that nobody will miss or his other filler pieces. On the rare exception that somebody offers him a kings ransom, he will loan out The Scream and hope that his patrons buy their tickets before finding out his signature piece is gone.

Back to real life Prokorov. His signature player, Deron Williams, is taking his talents to Turkey this fall (unless there is a miracle). Only real life Prokorov isn't getting a loaning fee. And if Williams gets hurt or doesn't come back, Prokorov is out about 16 million in cost, but there is no telling how much he might lose from people buying tickets to come see Williams. If museum owner Prokorov lost The Scream (last valued at about 82 million dollars) he would be out a whole lot more up front, but now has just as big of a hole to fill as real life Prokorov without Williams. Bottom line is that both Prokorovs stand to benefit from having signature pieces in their collection.

And that leaves us, as fans, in a good place as long as we can see our favorite works of art hanging somewhere. Sure we'd prefer that they were hanging in Brooklyn, Miami, Milwaukee or Salt Lake City, but if we have to tap into some Turkish TV channel to see them then that's okay. The real tragedy is when the art isn't hanging anywhere at all.

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