In punishing the National Academy for its desperation deaccessions, the Association of Art Museum Directors went too far. The unfortunate byproduct of that has been to galvanize certain art lawyers and museum consultants, who think that some institutions (perhaps those to which they provide counsel) would benefit by a loosening of deaccession standards. If it’s okay for museums to sell art, these critics reason, then it should be okay for them to use those proceeds however they wish (not just for acquisitions), especially if that money is essential to institutional survival.
As I’ve stated before, the deaccession-or-die argument is too often an easy substitute for the hard work of fundraising and responsible museum management. Loosening standards would make it much too easy for inept administrators and trustees to run an institution into the ground and then dig themselves out by using collections as ATM machines. If AAMD were to weaken its stand against monetizing collections, the slippery slope would become an avalanche.
But AAMD has left an opening for those who argue for a looser grip on collections, by not making its own deaccession guidelines tight enough. It’s NOT okay for museums to sell art, or at least it shouldn’t be, unless that art is manifestly not of museum quality and has no use for study purposes.
In my view, it’s not even okay for one museum to sell museum-quality art to another museum. Doing that means that the public is, in essence, paying for the same object twice: The tax exemptions that are granted to nonprofit institutions and the tax deductions allowed to donors are the way by which the American public subsidizes museums and their acquisitions. The objects are held in trust for us by these nonprofit institutions. If a museum truly has no use for a museum-quality work, it shouldn’t sell, but give it to another museum (as recently happened with the transfer to the Metropolitan Museum of the Brooklyn Museum’s costume collection).
AAMD’s “Criteria for Deaccessioning and Disposal,” as presently worded, are not binding criteria; they’re SUGGESTED criteria. They are presented in the association’s “Professional Practices in Art Museums” as reasons why art disposals “might be contemplated.” Those reasons include: poor quality, poor condition, redundancy, inauthenticity, problems of title, inconsistency with the museum’s mission.
If AAMD wants to assert moral authority and take the high ground on this issue, it should insist that its own stated criteria be the ONLY possible justifications for disposals of objects, rather than factors that “might be contemplated.” And if it truly wants transparency in museum deaccessioning, AAMD should insist that its members publicize contemplated deaccessions in advance, on their websites and/or on AAMD’s website, so that the public can be properly informed of plans to dispose of the public’s patrimony. Publication in an auction catalogue, after an item has already been consigned for sale, is not sufficient notice.
Only with a requirement for advance public disclosure will stealth deaccessions like the National Academy’s become a thing of the past.
And now, in other deaccession news…Jehuda Reinharz, as quoted in today’s (Thursday’s) Boston Globe by reporter Geoff Edgers, simply cannot be serious! If you thought Brandeis University was flip-flopping before, just get a load of this.