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Bricks-and-Mortar Morass: Cleveland Desecrates Donor Intent

Cleveland Museum of Art’s new Viñoly-designed East Wing

The Cleveland Museum last week filed for court permission (as first reported here by the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Steve Litt) to deviate from the terms of charitable funds established by four major supporters. The benefactors had stipulated that their gifts be applied to the acquisition of art, not bricks and mortar.

Cleveland’s legal quest to divert income from those funds to its capital campaign is, to my mind, the most egregious disregard of donor intent by an art-displaying institution in recent memory.

In its court filings, the museum did not argue (as did the Barnes Foundation, Fisk University and the National Academy) that it needed relaxation of ethical guidelines or donor restrictions because its very survival was at stake. It wants to use the money to help fund the second phase of its 200,000-square-foot Rafael Viñoly-designed expansion. The projected cost of the museum’s ambitious capital project (which included construction of its East Wing, above, which opened in June) ballooned from $258 million in 2005 to $350 million as of mid-2008—just before the economic bubble burst. The museum has already demolished its 1958 and 1983 wings—the first part of the project’s second phase.

This episode is all the more lamentable because, unlike other art-exhibiting institutions that have toyed with donor intent, Cleveland is a premier art museum and belongs to the Association of Art Museum Directors, whose members purport to uphold and promote the highest ethical standards of responsible governance.

I will discuss the museum’s legal arguments in a subsequent post. But first, what does AAMD think?

Litt reports:

[Timothy] Rub [the museum’s director], who will leave next month to take over the Philadelphia Museum of
Art, said that using art-purchase income for construction would not
violate ethical guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors,
the lead organization of the nation’s largest art museums.

Not so fast, Tim! Here’s what Janet Landay, executive director of AAMD, had to say in response to my queries:

AAMD has received the court filing that we are now reviewing in order to learn more about the Cleveland Museum of Art’s proposal. That review should
be completed in the next few weeks and AAMD will decide after that review whether or not we will make a statement.

AAMD’s response to this breach of good faith with donors will be crucial: Without a swift, forceful corrective, Cleveland’s action could make benefactors around the country doubt that museums can be trusted to honor their wishes. Cleveland’s second thoughts may well give rise to second thoughts by potential donors.

Interestingly, Stephen Knerly Jr., Cleveland’s lawyer in this matter, has been AAMD’s legal advisor since 2006. So censuring the museum’s actions, should that occur, would put AAMD in the awkward position of censuring the activity of its own counsel. Even more awkward is dressing down one of the association’s most venerable, distinguished members. But it must be done.

Litt’s article quotes the museum’s board president, Alfred Rankin Jr., defending the plan, but the newspaper report doesn’t explicitly state that the repurposing of acquisition funds has been fully endorsed by Rub or by the museum’s incoming interim director, Deborah Gribbon. I directly inquired about their views, and received this oblique reply from James Kopniski, the museum’s communications manager:

This plan was board initiated, in concert with Timothy and the museum’s senior management. Gribbon was provided with all the information prior to the court filing, and was aware of this when she was evaluating whether to accept the position of interim director.

It is entirely possible that neither the departing director (with one-and-a-half feet out the door) nor the incoming interim (not there yet) felt comfortable interfering with the board’s initiative. This highly irregular action should not have been undertaken during a time of transition in professional leadership.

The only good thing about this is that even if the court approval is granted, the diversion of funds designated by donors for acquisitions is not a done deal. Litt reports:

The museum’s board of trustees won’t decide until December whether to
proceed on schedule with construction, but having access to the
art-purchase income would certainly help the project.

Perhaps. But it would certainly hurt the credibility of museums everywhere.

COMING SOON: My complaints about Cleveland’s “Complaint for Declaratory Judgment.”

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