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Deaccession Obsession: NY State Board of Regents Issues Proposed Final Regulations

James Dawson, chair of the NY State Board of Regents’ Cultural Education Committee, which oversees museums

Get ready to draft your comments, deaccessionistas!

The NY State Board of Regents has just come out with its Proposed Permanent Amendment that would govern deaccession practices of museums and historical societies chartered by the Board. (Institutions chartered before 1890 are under the auspices of the State Legislature, not the Board of Regents. The Brodsky Bill, pending but stymied in State Legislature, would address the deaccession practices of all the state’s museums, including the oldest ones.)

The proposed regulations will be published in the State Register on Aug. 26, but the full text is already available for download online. Public comments can be snail mailed (3097 Cultural Education Center, Albany NY 12230) or e-mailed (no later than Sept. 25) to David Palmquist, head of museum chartering for the State Education Department. The Regents will vote on the proposal at their meeting on Oct. 19-20. The effective date of the rules, if adopted, will be Nov. 12.

This amendment, amplifying the temporary one first approved last December (here and here), would prohibit use of deaccession proceeds for operating expenses, payment of outstanding debt, or capital expenses (other than those for historic buildings designated as part of an institution’s collection). Proceeds cannot be used as loan collateral, and “collections shall not be capitalized” (i.e., listed as assets on an institution’s balance sheet). They can be used only for the acquisition, preservaton, protection or care of collections.

Like the rules approved last December, the new version is more stringent than the deaccession guidelines of the
Association of Art Museum Directors. AAMD lists criteria that “might be
contemplated” by museums considering disposals. The Regents’ rules dictate, rather than suggest. They state that an institution may dispose of an object ONLY if one or more of the following criteria (a longer list than in the previous version) is met:

—The item or material is inconsistent with the mission of the institution as set forth in its corporate purposes, mission statement and collection management policy.

—The item or material has failed to retain its identity.

—The item or material has been lost or stolen and has not been recovered.

—The item or material is redundant or duplicates other items or material in the collection of the institution and is not necessary for research or educational purposes

—The institution is unable to preserve or conserve the item or material in a responsible manner.

—The item is deaccessioned to accomplish refinement of collections as required by and/or stated in its collection management policy.

—The item has been established as being inauthentic.

—The institution is repatriating the item or returning the item to its rightful owner.

—The institution is returning the item to the donor, or the donor’s heirs or assigns, to fulfill donor restrictions relating to the item which the institution is no longer able to meet

—The item presents a hazard to people or other collection items.

The “refinement of collections” justification, above, could cover a multitude of sins. Still, this is a major regulatory push and, as such, is likely to provoke push-back from museums that would prefer the state not to impose strict controls over collection management.

I believe that government oversight (not just in New York, but throughout the country) is needed now more than ever, as the temptation to monetize collections for a quick fix becomes increasingly hard to resist. I’ve lost confidence in the ability of the field to regulate itself. It’s time to call in the reinforcements.

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