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What’s Wrong with the New AAMD Deaccession Guidelines?

Before I power down for a lon-g-g-g-g holiday weekend, here are my responses to the updated AAMD Policy on Deaccessioning, which we’ve all now had the chance to read:

The 12-page document fleshes things out, particularly with regard to fractional deaccessioning (with an appendix of six hypotheticals that resembles a hair-splitting
law-school assignment, but doesn’t add up to coherent policy). It addresses a few new areas, most notably: procedures for applying
sanctions to misbehaving museums and for bringing sanctioned museums
(i.e., the National Academy) back into the fold. (More on the National Academy’s situation at the end of this post.) But the amendment to AAMD’s Code of Ethics that elucidates procedures for sanctioning and de-sanctioning museums is written in nearly impenetrable legalese. This is prose that only an attorney could love.
For most of the document, we still find ourselves mired in the wishy-washy realm of: should “be thoughtful about” (accepting works with restrictions); “should publish on its website” (works that have already been disposed of, but not those whose disposal is planned); “might be contemplated” (the conditions under which art sales might be appropriate); “exercise great care” (in altering the museum’s mission as a prelude to deaccessioning—what I call mission creep); and “may give consideration to” (keeping a deaccessioned work in the public domain—something that I believe should be strongly encouraged, not just suggested).

In other words, AAMD wants its members to think carefully about their actions and helpfully suggests what they should be thinking about. But unambiguously prescriptive words like “must” and “must not,” are, for the most part, not in the vocabulary. To me, the biggest disconnect between AAMD’s public-spirited window-dressing and actuality is the disconnect between its assertion that “attention must be given to transparency throughout the [deaccessioning] process” and its failure to require museums to post lists of to-be-deaccessioned objects before they are actually sold, not only after the disposals are a fait accomplit.

It’s worth observing (although I’m sure AAMD doesn’t want to) that according to the provisions in the association’s guidelines, the Getty Museum (temporarily not a member of AAMD because it currently lacks a permanent director) shouldn’t be allowed in the club. That’s because AAMD’s policy statement declares that members’ museums “should not [emphasis added] capitalize…collections”—something that the Getty has long done. Then again, as you lawyers know, “should not” isn’t quite the same thing as “must not” or “shall not.”

The only things that you absolutely cannot do in AAMD-land are: apply a museum’s art sale proceeds to operations or capital expenses; acquire a deaccessioned work if you are employed by or closely associated with the museum; or sell only a fraction of a museum’s ownership interest in a work to an organization that is not open to the public.

Otherwise, be sure to “give consideration to” whatever it is you want to do, formulate a plausible rationale, and go ahead and do it!

As for the current status of the AAMD/National Academy standoff…this just in from the association’s executive director, Janet Landay, in response to my query sent this afternoon:

AAMD has not lifted sanctions on the National Academy, and does not
have a specific timeline for doing so.  We continue a policy of
constructive engagement with them, as they work to put in place a new
strategic and financial plan.

an ArtsJournal blog