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AAMD Issues New Statement Deploring Fisk’s $30-Million Crystal Bridges Deal

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Dan Monroe, President of the Association of Art Museum Directors

At the end of my recent report on the Tennessee Court of Appeals’ regrettable approval of Fisk University’s proposed $30-million sale of a half-share of its Stieglitz Collection to Alice Walton‘s Crystal Bridges Museum, I called upon the Association of Art Museum Directors to “strongly exert its influence” on the Arkansas museum, “which has repeatedly professed a desire to be embraced by the professional art museum community.”

What I didn’t say is that I didn’t believe that AAMD would actually do this. That’s because when I had a wide-ranging phone conversation with the association’s president, Dan Monroe, last July, I had asked whether he thought that the association should take a position against using the courts to circumvent art donors’ gift restrictions (as Fisk has done in seeking to circumvent donor Georgia O’Keeffe‘s no-sale restriction for the Stieglitz Collection).

Here’s how Monroe responded:

The position that AAMD has adopted is that it is a well established legal process [to seek court permission to deviate from donor restrictions], and whether or not one likes the outcome of specific cases one way or the other, the fact is that to try to establish policy that would in any way be in conflict with that established legal process just doesn’t make a great deal of sense….From the standpoint of good policy making, putting yourself in a position that would in any way be acting in opposition to the legal system is very risky.

Yesterday AAMD commendably elected to take that risk. Here is the full text of its Stieglitz Collection pronouncement:

In response to the ruling on Nov. 29, 2011 by the Tennessee Appeals Court regarding the Stieglitz Collection of Fisk University, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) released the following statement:

AAMD is extremely concerned by the ruling of the Appellate Court of Tennessee that allows Fisk University to pursue an agreement to sell a half share of its Stieglitz collection to fund operations. As AAMD has stated consistently, such an action would violate a core professional standard of AAMD and of the museum field, which prohibit the use of funds from the sale of works of art for purposes other than building an institution’s collection. Using funds from the sale of works of art for general expenses undermines the institution’s public trust, service to its community, and the relationship between museums and their supporters.

AAMD believes that art collections owned by colleges and universities are an irreplaceable component of academic and community life and that they should not be treated as disposable financial assets. Art museums and galleries—standing alone or operated as part of a college or university–fundamentally compromise the field’s core principles and negatively impact the entire art museum community when they sell art to support operations.

If this case had merely involved deviating from donor Georgia O’Keeffe’s conditions, but did not also involve a violation of AAMD’s policy against use of art-sale proceeds to defray debts and operating costs, we might not have heard a peep from AAMD. But now that it’s shown a willingness to speak out against court decisions that run contrary to responsible professional practice, it should take a more activist stance against other violations of donor intent, whether or not they run afoul of AAMD’s deaccession policies and whether or not they run contrary to court decisions. Just because judges rule that something is “legal” doesn’t make it ethical.

What AAMD still needs to do (and perhaps is doing, behind the scenes) is to exert pressure on the art museum that instigated, through its megabucks offer, this “compromise of the field’s core principles,” undermining “the relationship between museums and their supporters.” That, of course, is Crystal Bridges.

If AAMD doesn’t do more to proactively defend the interests of benefactors, museums will have no one but themselves to blame for a loss of confidence among future potential donors that art institutions can be trusted.

Museums should take care not to accede to unreasonable donor demands. But once a deal is struck, it needs to be honored.

an ArtsJournal blog