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Legislating Deaccession Policy: Brodsky Bill Musings at NY Museums Conference

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The Deaccession Diva (aka CultureGrrl), warbling at the MANY/UHA conference in Tarrytown

I’m a strong believer that the time has come for forceful state legislation, enforced by State Attorneys General, to regulate museum disposals from the public’s patrimony. The traditional posture of museums has been that they can regulate themselves and that politicians should not interfere. But as recent developments have shown, the profession has not always done a great job of self-policing. As financial pressures mount, so does the pressure to monetize collections.

So I was pleasantly surprised to hear no objections raised about the Brodsky bill by the large group of potentially affected museum officials who attended my “Desperation Deaccessions” session at this week’s annual meeting of the Museum Association of New York and the Upstate History Alliance. Indeed, the comments focussed on reaffirming the responsibility of museums to hold their collections in trust for the public.

Kelly MacMillan, chief of staff for the bill’s author, NY State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, reported to our group:

We haven’t, to my knowledge, had any hostile negative feedback. There’s been a lot of questions and concerns, but as they’re raised and we address them, we’ve found that people are quite comfortable with it.

I checked today with Assemblyman Brodsky, who affirmed that “the feedback is almost all positive, with specific questions about the smaller elements of the proposal.”

Questions raised at my session concerned unspecified mechanisms for enforcement (which could presumably involve the state’s Board of Regents and the State Attorney General’s office) and the unresolved issues of how to address the problem of a museum’s imminent bankruptcy and how to provide safe harbor for collections in the event of actual bankruptcy (when creditors may have first call on available assets).

I also had a question.

Rosenbaum: Has there been any pushback on the provision saying that you have to try to transfer or sell deaccessioned works to museums in New York State [or, failing that, to museums elsewhere in the country]?

MacMillan: I think the pushback has been, “How do you expect us to do that?” I think people agree conceptually with the idea, but then they want to go to the nuts and bolts of how do you do that. You actually raised in your presentation how that was done before. I was interested as you were describing that process. I didn’t know the exact details on it.

[In my talk, I had described the detailed arrangement (scroll to the penultimate paragraph) made by then Attorney General G. Oliver Koppell,
which gave New York State museums advantageous purchase terms at the
1995 New-York Historical Society’s major sell-off at Sotheby’s.]

I was also encouraged by this remark from MacMillan:

Legislation is always a work-in-progress. If something came up that somebody brought to us, I think we’re all flexible and open-minded enough to know when we need to amend our own bills.

Do you suspect that I may have some emendations in mind? COMING SOON.

But Coming Now: A shout-out to CultureGrrl Donors 26 and 27, from Pasadena, CA, and Landsdale, PA. Many thanks to both for supporting the blog!

Am I starting to see a hopeful trend? Don’t stop now!

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