David Ross, chair of MFA Art Practice at New York’s School of Visual Arts (and former director of the Whitney Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Boston ICA), responds to Hopper Whopper: More on Pennsylvania Academy’s Deplorable Deaccession; Why AAMD Should Act:
You are both right and wrong about the proposed Hopper sale. You are right, in that a museum with only two examples of an artist as important as Hopper, should not be selling one of them. You are also right that, even if the museum does sell the Hopper, the funds should be used to enhance their American modernist holdings, not to venture into contemporary. That may not be a hard and fast rule, and surely it is not one that the AAMD uses in their ruling on the appropriateness of a deaccession, but it is one I’ve always felt made sense.
And though selling orphaned material seems ok to me—especially if it can be arranged to go to a public institution that collects that work—selling off important works from the museum’s core collections never seems right.
In general, I also agree with you that it’s sort of cheating to sell off valuable older material so that an institution can begin to collect contemporary. If a museum wants to collect contemporary, it should raise funds from trustees and other patrons and engage that world as best as they can. And if current patrons are not interested, add new patrons. In other words, don’t sell the seed corn.
That said, I do not think this is an issue for the AAMD, or any external oversight body except the museum’s own trustees. They are the men and women entrusted with the preservation of the works held by their museum. If they agree, then you may (and should) criticize them and their director. The AAMD should only step in if an institution sells work to support operating costs, or as in the Detroit situation, when collections are threatened by debt obligations external to the museum.
The AAMD is relatively powerless for good reasons. I feel strongly that we should trust the intelligence and professionalism of museum professionals and the seriousness of responsible boards of trustees. We don’t need the AAMD to serve as a museum police force. State and federal tax authorities and attorneys general can and do enforce violations of law, and that’s how it should be.
So criticize all you like when you feel an institution is selling work you feel they should not, and turn up the heat when you feel trustees are not living up to their responsibilities, but don’t expect the AAMD to solve or even address your concern.
As I suggested at the end of my first post about PAFA’s Hopper, I am well aware that the chances of AAMD’s second-guessing a dicey decision by one of its own members are slim to nil. But unlike David, I believe it’s preferable for the field to be proactive about policing itself, rather than to wait for “state and federal tax authorities and attorneys general” to step in.
In this particular case, there appears to be no “violation of law” that would trigger any government action. But there is, I believe, a breach of public trust that should concern all who have a stake in the professional reputation of museums.