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NYS Regents Reverse Course on Desperation Deaccessions

“You helped focus everyone in the field on this,” Dewey Blanton, head of media relations for the American Association of Museums, told me this morning about the decision of the NY State Board of Regent’s Cultural Education Committee to withdraw its Emergency Amendment that would have allowed museums and historical societies to sell objects from their collections “for purposes
of obtaining funds to pay outstanding debt.”

Blanton credited my emergency post last week about this amendment with helping to spur AAM (which sent its comments to the Regents on Friday) and other concerned members of the museum community to send statements objecting to the state government’s proposed validation of desperation deaccessions.

The newly revised language of an amendment to Regents’ “Rule 3.27 Relating to Museum Collections Management Policies,” which David Palmquist, head of museum chartering for the NY State Board of Regents, forwarded to Blanton in a new draft dated today, states the following:

In no event [emphasis added] shall proceeds derived from the deaccessioning of any property from the collection be used for operating expenses, for the payment of outstanding debt [emphasis added], or for capital expenses other than such expenses incurred to preserve, protect or care for an historic building which has been designated part of its collections.

[You can find the new draft of the amendment by going here, and scrolling way down, past the language of the original amendment, to the section titled, “AMENDMENT OF THE RULES OF THE BOARD OF REGENTS.”]

What’s more, the new proposed guidelines (to be considered by the Cultural Education Committee this afternoon) are now even MORE stringent than the deaccession guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors. AAMD lists criteria that “might be contemplated” by museums considering disposals. Its deaccession suggestions are not mandatory, a loophole that I have previously criticized.

The Regents’ revised proposed guidelines, to be considered at today’s meeting of the Cultural Education Commitee, are more forceful. They state that “an institution may deaccession an item or material in its collection ONLY [emphasis added] where one or more” of the following criteria are met: The item is not relevant to the institution’s mission; it no longer “retain[s] its identity” (presumably because of condition problems); it is lost or stolen; it is a duplicate not needed for research or educational purposes; the institution lacks the ability to conserve it.

Palmquist told me that he had received “a ton of comments” about the now aborted emergency amendment. Aside from the concerns of museum professionals, there’s another reason why the change is no longer on the table: As Palmquist himself had indicated to me on Thursday (before the language was redrafted), the “emergency” that prompted the amendment no longer exists. The original draft was designed with the serious financial difficulties of Fort Ticonderoga in mind.

As Richard Richtmyer of the Associated Press reported yesterday:

Fort Ticonderoga last summer said it wanted to sell some of its works — including a painting by Thomas Cole thought to be worth millions—to help erase about $2.5 million in debt.

The decision by James Dawson, chairman of the Regents’ Cultural Education Committee, to withdraw the original amendment stemmed partly from Fort Ticonderoga’s recent fundraising success. “Since the emergency has been removed, we don’t need to do it,” Dawson told the AP.

Nevertheless, the Regents may soon revisit this issue. Dawson told Richtmyer:

In the fiscal climate the country and the state we are in right now, we can see additional cultural institutions coming into fiscal crisis, We need to have a procedure for dealing with that.

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