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News Flash: NYS Regents Pass Stringent Deaccession Regulations (finally!)

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John King Jr., New York State’s newly elected Education Commissioner

It’s been a long slog, but a new, overdue national model for the regulation of museum deaccessions was enacted today by the NY State Board of Regents.

The Regents unanimously approved a permanent amendment to Regents Rule §3.27, relating to museum collections management policies. The new rules, effective June 8, will govern deaccession practices of all museums and historical societies chartered by the Regents. (Institutions created before 1890 are chartered by the State Legislature; a bill is still pending there to regulate deaccessions for those institutions.) The Regents’ temporary emergency amendment to Rule §3.27 had expired on Oct. 8, after the board had voted against making it permanent.

The rules approved today would allow museums to dispose of works from their collections only if at least one fo the following 10 criteria is met:

—The item is inconsistent with the mission of the institution as set forth in its mission statement.

—The item has failed to retain its identity.

—The item is redundant.

—The item’s preservation and conservation needs are beyond the capacity of the institution to provide.

—The item is deaccessioned to accomplish refinement of collections.

—It has been established that the item is 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 item has been lost or stolen and has not been recovered.

This goes farther than the professional 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. Still, “refinement of collections” leaves a lot of wiggle room. And one person’s “redundancy” is another person’s “depth.”

Under the approved amendment, deaccession proceeds may be used only for “the acquisition of collections, or the preservation, conservation or direct care of collections. In no event shall proceeds derived from the deaccessioning of any property from the collection be used for operating expenses or for any [other] purposes.”

The amendment also states that objects from museum collections and/or their sales proceeds “shall not be used as collateral for a loan.”

I particularly like the requirement that “each institution shall include in its annual report [to the State Education Commissioner] a list of all items or item lots [groups of related items] deaccessioned in the past year and all items or item lots disposed of in the past year.” Filed with a government body, these reports enumerating museum disposals would, I assume, be public documents.

The emergency amendment that was allowed to expire last fall had listed only four conditions under which disposals were permitted. Museum officials had persuasively (and appropriately) argued the need for additional rationales for deaccessioning, such as return to rightful owners.

The adoption of permanent regulations was temporarily scuttled by objections from some museum officials who did not welcome government interference in their disposal decisions. Robin Pogrebin of the NY Times had quoted a letter sent to the Regents by Glenn Lowry, the Museum of Modern Art’s director, less than a week before the Sept. 14 meeting where the rules to tighten restrictions on deaccessioning were rejected. Lowry had argued that the rules “would remove from Regents-governed institutions the curatorial discretion that has made them among the most respected in the world.” (The Times, at this writing, has not yet reported on today’s landmark action by the Regents.)

After the failure of the regulations to be adopted, the Regents in November appointed a 16-member Ad Hoc Advisory Committee to study deaccession issues. That committee favored the adoption of the new rules, according to Jeffrey Cannell, deputy commissioner for cultural education. Its members included: Martin Sullivan, director, National Portrait Gallery; Henry Lanman, associate general counsel, Museum of Modern Art; Thelma Golden, executive director and chief curator, Studio Museum in Harlem, Michael Botwinick, director, Hudson River Museum; Scott Schaefer, associate dean of science for collections, American Museum of Natural History.

When the amendment was rejected last October, David Steiner, the state’s education commissioner, stated that, after hearing views from museums statewide, “there was no consensus on the efficacy of those emergency regulations.”

Yesterday the Regents elected a new education commissioner, John King Jr., formerly senior deputy commissioner. He will now be charged with administering the new collections-management rules.

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