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Deaccession Aggression: One Decision that AAMD Should Rescind

[NOTE: I originally intended to post this yesterday, until the Rose Art Museum situation preempted it. But recent developments make this recommendation more relevant than ever, as I will argue below.]

I’m second to no one in deploring the National Academy Museum’s desperation deaccessions, but I think the Association of Art Museum Directors’ reaction to that watershed event went too far in one respect. In another respect, though, AAMD has yet to go far enough. My opinions on this are only reinforced by the late-breaking news (here, here, here and here) about Brandeis University’s decision to “deaccession” its entire Rose Art Museum.

There are two fixes that I think AAMD’s membership should consider during the deaccession deliberations at the association’s midwinter meeting this week. Here’s the first:

Rescind the AAMD board’s decision to isolate the National Academy.

The National Academy made a deplorable mistake in selling two important paintings to fund operations and pay debts. I completely agree that losing its AAMD membership is the price it must pay for violating the association’s written ethical standards. Being removed from the leading professional organization of its peers imposes significant hardships, in terms of loss of reputation, loss of collegial fellowship, and the likely loss of financial support from donors and government funders repelled by the Academy’s actions.

That (as I’ve previously suggested) should be punishment enough.

To declare that AAMD members should no longer lend art to the National Academy or even collaborate on otherwise worthwhile projects, however, strikes me as nothing less than an assault on academic freedom. Not only are AAMD members withdrawing promised loans from future National Academy-organized exhibitions that have important public and scholarly value, but other museums that were planning to partner with the Academy now find themselves scrambling to change their plans so as not to incur the disapproval of their colleagues.

If you go to the Academy’s website, you can see the harm that AAMD’s blacklisting has already inflicted: The description (scroll down) of the museum’s future show of Zorn, Sargent and Sorolla no longer contains the names of the following institutions that were originally listed as lending works: the Metropolitan Museum, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, National Portrait Gallery, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Clark Art Institute, New Britain Museum of American Art. All that’s left from the original list of lenders is the Hispanic Society of America, which does not appear on on AAMD’s membership list.

Meanwhile, Brian Allen, director of the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA, recently described on his museum’s blog the difficulties that AAMD’s edict had caused his institution. Allen explained:

I think the art museum directors did the right thing. Unfortunately, its decision puts the Addison in a bind since we had planned to collaborate with the [National Academy] museum on a show called Maverick Modernists [Apr. 29-July 31, 2011], organized by the Addison and traveling also to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Amon Carter Museum. We have, at the request of the Association of Art Museum Directors, dropped the National Academy and are now working to replace it with another venue.

As it happens, the Addison had not intended to borrow works from the National Academy for this exhibition, as I was told yesterday by Juliann McDonough, the museum’s curatorial associate who is working on the show. But the logical extension of AAMD’s illogical excommunication is, “Neither a lender nor a borrower be.” Everyone, not just the National Academy, is the poorer if not only its staff but also its art becomes untouchable.

Imagine if this same policy were now applied to Brandeis University because of its profoundly wrongheaded plan to sell its entire art collection. Should curators from museums that are members of AAMD now be directed to steer clear of that university’s professors? Surely the Brandeis’ deaccession transgressions would be far worse, if realized, than the Academy’s. But blackballing its scholars seems, to me at least, unthinkable.

As you can tell from my Wall Street Journal article about Michael Conforti yesterday, AAMD’s leadership was, to put it mildly, miffed that Academy director Carmine Branagan, disregarding the association’s counsel and offers of help, forged ahead with the sales of its Frederic Church and Sanford Gifford. This strong displeasure at being deliberately defied undoubtedly figured into the board’s decision to do something beyond what is required by AAMD’s own guidelines.

The association’s policy guide, “Professional Practices in Art Museums,” states:

AAMD members who violate this code of ethics [which includes the stricture against selling art to raise operating funds] will be subject to discipline by reprimand, suspension or expulsion from the Association. Infractions by any art museum MAY [emphasis added] expose that institution to sanctions, such as suspension of loans and shared exhibitions by AAMD members.

The action taken by the association’s board against the Academy was excessive, unnecessary and unprecedented. It should be revisited this week by AAMD’s full membership.

COMING SOON (paradoxically): The need for stricter deaccession guidelines.

an ArtsJournal blog