In the world of museums, the past year or so has seen renovation and growth on a broad scale as well as bitter debate across continents. According to the American Association of Museums’ 2006 Museum Financial Information survey of 809 institutions tracks, at least half of those surveyed are either in the process of renovation or just completed one. (Think: all those fences and piles of steaming asphalt in between the University’s Museum of Art and Angel Hall. They’re going to be here for a long time.)

We all might be taking a bit of inspiration from New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.

Yesterday, MoMA opened its new research center, a $425 million project, to the public. While the center does not display more works, it does contain the museum’s extensive catalogue, offering enormous public research opportunities and public outreach campaigns. This comes just two years after the museum’s main building opened after substantial renovation.

As reported by CNN.com, MoMA’s director Glenn Lowry said that “with the opening of our new building in November 2004, we went from about 1.5 million people per year to 2.5 million.” He added: “We often have 13,000 people at the museum in a day.” Because of financial support from Target, Fridays at MoMA are free.

“If you can make a museum a hip place to be on a Friday afternoon, that is going to sustain itself over a long period of time,” Lowry said in the same interview.

Our own museum has been long dedicated to fostering as open an atmosphere as possible, including hosting free lectures to concerts in conjunction with the student radio station WCBN.

The $34.5 million campaign is just getting started, the finish line still a few years off – but for those who believe the building will look as good someday as it does in model form, the anticipation is already mounting.

But as our oldest museums hunker down with their respective face lifts and newer institutions spring up, fiery debate rages across continents as to what artwork belongs where.

For decades there has been plenty of publicity documenting the re-appropriation of Nazi-stolen artwork to rightful owners as well as the ongoing battle between Greece and England over the infamous Elgin Marbles (statues and friezes from the Parthenon). Greece’s argument relies on England’s “moral obligation” to return the marbles to their rightful home. Britain maintains both the legality of their purchase and the notion of the British Museum as a one-stop wealth of art and culture.

But these debates are eclipsed for the moment by the fierce struggle between Italy and Los Angeles’s Getty Museum (among several other American museums) over disputed classical artifacts. It’s no secret anymore how corrupted the global antiquities market is, with scandals still fresh in the news. While New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts have struck deals with Italy involving loans of Italian artifacts in exchange for disputed ones, the Getty has remained defiant, returning 26 of 52 artifacts. At the forefront of the debate surrounds one particular statue, “The Getty Bronze.” Known to the Italians as the “Athlete of Lysippos,” it was Purchased by the Getty in 1977 for $3.95 million, and dates to about the second or third century B.C.

As with Greece’s claim on the Elgin Marbles, Italy can do little but depend on moral argument in the case, since it seems quite clear that its discovery and subsequent retrieval were legal under existing law of the time.

Darkening the situation even further is the upcoming trial in Rome of former Getty antiquities curator Marion True. True has been linked to conspiracy charges surrounding the trafficking of stolen antiquities.

Museums, especially those in the United States, are at a crossroads: Great strides have been made in the continuing and furthering accessibility and relevance, but on a global scale, there remains much to be resolved. Arguments over disputed artworks will last for as long as there is art. But in the cases of Italy and Greece, their respective outcomes, for better or worse, will greatly affect the business side of an art world whose motives are becoming farther and farther cries away from the spirit of art itself.

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