I made friends (and probably some enemies) in Iowa with my posts (here, here, here, and here) about the University of Iowa Museum of Art’s (thus far) successful effort to prevail over those who would like to monetize the museum’s major Pollock to help pay for flood-damage recovery. I’ve been asked to speak this Wednesday on “When Values Collide: Financial Asset or Cultural Resource,” as part of the university’s Elliott Society Lecture Series. This discussion, as distinguished from my recent New York-focused talk in Tarrytown, will concentrate on the regrettably ample deaccession lore involving university art museums.
My talk has become even more timely, in light of the recent debate that’s been engendered by a provocative pro-deaccessioning piece published in Art in America magazine by the Art Law Blogger, Donn Zaretsky. I respect Donn’s legal expertise, and we’ve had a reasonable-people-can-disagree relationship on this issue. But his incessant and increasingly strident Deaccession Diatribes on his blog have, to my mind, become increasingly unreasonable.
Let me also specifically debunk, in this post, Donn’s two Big Ideas, which I shall paraphrase:
—If museum collections are, in fact, held in public trust, then there’s no damage to that trust if the works sold by museums are purchased by other museums.
First of all, the buyers of important works sold by museums are only sometimes other museums. And even if the public patrimony does manage to remain in the public domain, it does so at significant cost to the public. Those sold works (as I explain in greater detail in the above-linked Q&A), are already our stuff. Americans for whom museums hold these works in trust shouldn’t have to pay for them twice.
I believe that if a museum truly has no use for some works in its collection, it should give those works to another public institution (as happened here and here), not seek financial gain from another public institution. What’s already the public’s patrimony deserves to remain so, undisturbed.
The bigger of Donn’s Big Ideas merits more serious consideration, because it contains a grain of truth (again, paraphrased):
—The argument that museums hold work in public trust is inconsistent with the widely accepted principle that it’s okay to sell art for some purposes (i.e., to purchase other art; to care for the collection), but not for others (i.e., to pay for operating expenses, capital expenses or debts).
On this, we agree, although we have completely opposing notions about what logically follows from this insight. Zaretsky cites the inconsistency of institutional policy as justification for museum officials to sell whatever works they want to for whatever purpose they deem fit. In his view, if it’s okay to sell for some worthy purposes, it should be okay to do so for all worthy purposes.
To me, this deaccession-disconnect argues instead for a significant TIGHTENING of standards: As I’ve often stated, the only works that should be sold from the public domain are those that truly don’t belong there. I can’t say it better than I did in this post about the broader significance of proposed disposals from the Maier Museum of Randolph College and the Stieglitz Collection of Fisk University:
What laid the groundwork for these disposals? I think it’s the actions
of AAMD members themselves, in selling important works that they should
not have been selling, and getting away with it without significant
censure from their peers. True, those sales met the standard of selling
art to buy other art. But a number of recent museum disposals did not
fit comfortably within AAMD’s clearly enunciated criteria for
deaccessions: inferior, inauthentic or damaged works that really don’t
belong in the public domain, or duplicates. And suddenly changing an
institution’s mission statement to “justify” a new deaccessioning
campaign doesn’t pass the smell test.
My week-long trip to the Midwest (which also includes stops in Kansas City, Des Moines and Davenport, IA) will mean little or no CultureGrrl posting until the week of Apr. 20. As I’ve already indicated, I will repurpose this blog on May 1—a consequence of my inability to find a business model that would justify my continuing to devote so much time to what has been a labor of love for three years (as of Apr. 23).
Thanks for your suggestions: going nonprofit to increase the possibility of donations; charging subscriptions. I don’t believe these will solve the basic problem: People expect their online content to be free.
In the meantime, you can entertain yourselves with this slide show of highlights of the University of Iowa Museum’s collection (including its celebrated Pollock, above), as they are of being installed at the Figge Art Museum, Davenport, where I hope to see them next week.