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NY Times Explores Death of State’s Deaccession Regs; Ignores New Law Subverting Donor Intent

Merryl Tisch, Chancellor, NY Board of Regents

Robin Pogrebin‘s three-weeks-after-the-fact post mortem in the NY Times about the NY Board of Regents’ astonishing, inadequately explained about-face on deaccession regulations sheds some light on what went on behind the scenes.

Robin includes this quote from the influential letter addressed to the Regents by Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, on Sept. 9—less than a week before the temporary rules to tighten restrictions on deaccessioning were killed:

If made permanent, this rule would remove from Regents-governed
institutions the curatorial discretion that has made them among the most
respected in the world.

Mr. Curatorial Discretion oversaw what I regard as one of the most deplorable museum deaccessions ever perpetrated. I’d introduce it as Exhibit A in evidence of why museums need to be more tightly regulated: In 2003, MoMA sold to the late dealer/collector Heinz Berggruen a seminal 1909 Cubist Picasso (bequeathed to MoMA in 1979 by Nelson Rockefeller). The “justification” for disposing of this masterpiece was that the museum had a comparable work that had been promised to the museum in 1970 by David Rockefeller. In 1991, he gave MoMA a 10% fractional interest in the painting.

That promised gift, largely absent from the galleries, did make a fleeting reappearance, July 17-Aug. 31, 2009, in satisfaction of the IRS’s new fractional-gift requirement for periodic physical possession by the museum:

Picasso, “The Reservoir, Horta de Ebro,” 1909, fractional and promised gift to MoMA from Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller, 1991, as seen at the museum in August 2009

Robin mentioned in her article that Merryl Tisch, the Regents’ chancellor, was connected to MoMA as a donor through her and her husband’s foundation. But there’s another Tisch family connection: Joan Tisch is a life trustee (scroll down) of MoMA. She’s the widow of Preston Tisch, who was the brother of Merryl’s late father-in-law, Laurence.

In talking to the Times, Merryl promised that the Regents would be “transparent” in deliberating on what to do next about possible revisions to the old, less stringent deaccession rules (which will supplant the temporarily adopted stricter regs on Oct. 9). That transparency would be a refreshing change from board’s most recent flip-flop, which left proponents of the tighter rules feeling blindsided (as detailed by Robin and by me).

Speaking of “blindsided,” when will the Times get around to critically examining the stealth provision buried in New York’s new UPMIFA law? That mischievous language—quietly inserted in a bill that had been publicly described as allowing financially strapped museums to dip in to “underwater” endowments—is an under-the-radar abdication of policy-making to the museums that have lobbied for as little regulation as possible over the disposition of their collections and financial assets.

The new law explicitly gives museums greater lattitude in diverting endowment funds away from the purposes specifically stipulated by the donor. It’s Manna from Hanna, all over again.

Speaking of donor intent, my very warm thanks go out to CultureGrrl Donor 146 from New York and very generous Repeat Donor 147 from Los Angeles. I hope that more of you, returned from your poolside pursuits, will soon engage my “Donate” button, with the intent of encouraging me to blog!

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