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Museum Collections: Curatorial Privilege and the Public Interest

This is an overly long post, but a serious subject deserves serious treatment. The following are my promised comments responding to comments made to me last week by Metropolitan Museum curator Gary Tinterow.
One of the prime movers in founding the Association of Art Museum Curators in 2001, Tinterow appears more focused on curator-power than on public accountability, as evidenced by his recent remarks to me on the subject of collection management.
Decisions to sell objects from museum collections must not be subject to the subjective judgments or personal preferences of individual curators, however knowledgeable and well-intentioned they may be. The governing presumption should be: What enters the public domain stays in the public domain, except for works that are clearly inferior in quality or condition. The public has paid for them, after all, through the tax deductions given to the donors of money or of art.
Curatorial prerogatives are not absolute; they must be subordinated to the professional guidelines set by the Association of Art Museum Directors:

Both the deaccessioning and the disposal of a work of art from a museum’s collection require exceptional care and should reflect policy rather than reaction to the exigencies of a particular moment. Standards applied to deaccessioning and disposal must be at least as stringent as those applied to the acquisition process and should not be subject to changes in fashion and taste.

Tinterow may have been correct in observing to me that some museum officials have sold objects, only to have their successors (or curators at other museums) subsequently retrieve them for the public domain. But far from justifying incautious deaccessioning, this merely demonstrates the folly of it. There is no justification for disposing of works that tomorrow’s curators may deem worthy of study or exhibition, no matter how much today’s curators want to fund their own purchases of art through sales of objects that they deem expendable.
How much do today’s curators at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, for example, wish that they still had the fine Hudson River School paintings that were sold in the 1950s (as discussed in my recent Wall Street Journal article) by then director Richard Davies, who deemed them not important enough for the collection? Different types of art go in and out of fashion. A museum’s collection should be for the ages and not be subject to such vagaries.
The Met’s most recent deaccession controversy involved its plan to sell a sculpture by Eduardo Chillida. That plan was abandoned after it was revealed that the donor of the work opposed the sale. Tinterow told me last week that the sculpture would never be exhibited at the Met, because it is too large. But, as Michael Kimmelman reported in the NY Times, it had already been exhibited there three times, making the curator’s resolve never to show it again seem questionable.
There are probably a number of art museums that would be very pleased to make room in their galleries or sculpture gardens for an important Chillida. If the Met has no use for a museum-quality work, it should lend or give that object to a sister institution that CAN use it, thereby keeping it in the public domain where it belongs.
The spectre of finite exhibition and storage space, raised by Tinterow in the comments I quoted last Friday, is a real concern. The late Stephen Weil, a noted authority on legal issues involving art museums, once suggested that institutions were going to have to consider “triage” for their collections, because they had accumulated more stuff than they knew what to do with.
But not all museums are overstuffed. Collection-sharing IS an option—one that should be more seriously explored by all museums with a superabundance of riches.

an ArtsJournal blog