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Channeling Max Anderson: NY State’s Deaccession Bill Rewritten

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Maxwell Anderson, director of Indianapolis Museum of Art

“What does the current version of NY State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky‘s deaccession bill actually SAY?” readers of Robin Pogrebin‘s embargo-busting article are asking themselves plaintively.

CultureGrrl is here to tell you. First, you should know that it’s no longer the same bill that we encountered back in March.

When I recently wrote (in connection with the Orange County Museum disposals) that the Brodsky Bill was a good model for urgently needed state legislation regulating deaccessioning, little did I know that text of the current bill before the NY State Legislature is in some ways stronger and in another, weaker than the original that I had admired.

The most laudable change in new version essentially codifies, for institutions throughout New York, the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s prototypical deaccession database, which I previously touted as “the gold standard for deaccession transparency.” Brodsky specifically alluded to the Indianapolis model in a June 11 letter in which he explained the changes to potentially affected museums.

Under this new provision, museums and other collecting institutions would be required to publish their own registers of items in their collections, as well
as “a register of newly accessioned or deaccessioned items.” The accession/deaccession registry would have to be launched immediately. The
complete collection register would be required within three years (with possible extensions for “good cause”). Several museums have criticized this requirement as too
burdensome and costly. The original bill required each institution to “publish a register of the contents of its collection,” but there was no separate registry devoted exclusively to accessions and deaccessions.

What’s more, under the revised bill, institutions will be asked to “list an item for actual or potential deaccessioning” on a new, statewide, online registry created by the Board of Regents and publicly accessible.

In response to museums’ delayed criticism of the bill, Brodsky has in one way significantly weakened it: Gone is the provision (which I had favored but predicted would prove controversial) requiring museums to “make a good faith effort to sell or transfer such [deaccessioned] item to another
museum in New York State. If such sale or transfer cannot be
accomplished, a museum must make a good faith effort to sell or transfer
such item to another public museum.”

Brodsky mentioned to me in an interview yesterday that institutions interested in acquiring works targeted for deaccession by other institutions will be able to get wind of those offerings through the new online registry, and, if desired, try to acquire them. But that’s not nearly as protective of the public patrimony as the previous requirement for a proactive “good faith effort” on the part of deaccessioners to seek out institutional acquirers.

I still believe that the public’s interest in preserving the public patrimony should outweigh an institution’s desire to exploit its collections for maximum financial return. If a work belongs in a museum, it should stay in a museum.

Seeking support for legislation is, if nothing else, an exercise in compromise. But has Brodsky actually succeeded in garnering support from the field?

COMING LATER: Museums push back against the Brodsky Bill.

an ArtsJournal blog