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Deaccession Meeting: NY State Cultural Officials Discuss Brodsky Bill

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Front row, left to right: Assemblymen Steve Englebright, Richard Brodsky and Matthew Titone

The usual arguments about government regulation of museum deaccessioning, pro and con, were rehashed at a meeting in Manhattan called yesterday by the NY State Assembly’s Committee on Tourism, Parks, Art and Sports to discuss the Brodsky Bill (A6959), which would regulate art sales by museums, libraries and historic houses in the state.

Most of this, for me, was “heard this, done that,” but there was one shocker, which I’ve never come across before: Brodsky mentioned several times that if the bill passes, museums would not be able to give buyers good title if they sold art in violation of the law’s provisions (i.e., if they don’t observe the listed criteria for determining which objects may be deaccessioned and/or if they use the proceeds to pay bills or debts). If that doesn’t discourage dubious deaccessioning, nothing will. But I wonder what other lawyers would say about this purported effect on title of the proposed law.

Those who expressed concerns about the bill focused mostly on what they perceived as the possibly onerous and costly requirement for institutions to “publish a register of items in its collection.” Brodsky repeatedly assured the gathering that the legislation will not make them do any more work or spend any more money than they already have done in cataloguing collections. He promised that the bill would be tweaked to make this completely clear.

The most moving moment (for me) came when Carol Ghiorsi Hart, executive director of the financially beleaguered Vanderbilt Museum, Centerport, Long Island, recounted how Suffolk County legislators had urged her to sell objects to balance the budget.

I said, “No. We can’t do that.”

Codifying the professional standards in this legal way would be very helpful in this kind of situation.

Brodsky termed his bill a “firewall,” intended to shield collections like the Vanderbilt’s from pressure to liquidate their holdings in hard times.

But now, let me give you a seat at the meeting, with three CultureGrrl Videos. The first contains the introductions to the roundtable, first by the bill’s chief sponsor, Assemblymen Richard Brodsky, and second by the committee’s chairman, Assemblyman Steve Englebright.

In the next clip, Assemblyman Jonathan Bing, who represents the district that includes Manhattan’s Museum Mile of Fifth Avenue, expresses his constituents’ reservations about this bill (with which, of course, I disagree, but which inspired a “Here! Here!” and a smattering of applause from the audience).

Finally, Michael Botwinick, former director of the Brooklyn Museum and current director of the Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, makes the case in favor of the deaccession bill from a veteran museum professional’s perspective:

As you can tell from Bing’s opening comments, the critics who had voiced objections to the bill in previous communications with the Assembly were largely silent at this meeting, which drove him to speak on his museum-constituents’ behalf. Among those in listen-only mode was Rebecca Gideon, assistant counsel of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had been among the bill’s sharpest critics.

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Rebecca Gideon, attorney for the Met

In general, the institutions that would be most affected by this legislation are those (including the Met) that were founded before 1890. Because these were chartered by the State Legislature, not the Board of Regents, they are not governed by the Regents’ stringent rules on deaccessioning. The Regents again extended their temporary rules in December and are awaiting the legislature’s action before enacting permanent strictures.

Speaking of “heard this, done that,” this was definitely not “the first discussion of deaccessioning among state policymakers and museum professionals in a public setting,” which (according to Robin Pogrebin‘s NY Times report) this meeting had been “billed as.”

Who could forget the 1973 hearings held by then NY State Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz, prompted by the controversy over art sales orchestrated by then Metropolitan Museum director Tom Hoving? Well, I couldn’t forget, because I was there (and found it a lot more interesting, because major museum figures spoke).

Another Deaccession Roundtable on the Brodsky Bill will be held in Albany, date to be announced.

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