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Delaware Art Museum’s Deaccession Debacle: My Q&A with Its Former Director, Danielle Rice

Danielle Rice

Danielle Rice

While the Delaware Art Museum has been the target of considerable criticism among museum professionals for its decision to sell art to repay debts and enhance the endowment, no one has been more distressed by this development than the museum’s own former director, Danielle Rice, who left at the end of August to direct a program in museum leadership at Drexel University.

In a candid, in-depth conversation with me, Rice expressed her strong disapproval of what the trustees did after she left, outlined what should have been done instead, and commented on what lies ahead for her former institution.

Below are extensive excerpts from our dialogue:

ROSENBAUM: How do you feel about what’s happened at your former museum?

RICE: I’m just heartbroken. I feel like such a failure. I should have saved the place, and I did try my damnedest. It’s so sad, because it’s such a wonderful gem—such a professional staff and a great collection!

ROSENBAUM: Did you know this was coming?

RICE: Of course I did! Every single trustee of every single museum board always thinks, “We can always sell art.” So from the minute I stepped into the place, I was saying to them, “No, you can’t do that.”

They knew that if they decided to go this route, I would leave. There would be sanctions. You certainly can’t do that under my leadership. But the train was coming down the road and it was getting faster and faster.

ROSENBAUM: Is that why you left? Because you knew you had lost that battle and they were going to do it under your leadership unless you left?

RICE: Let’s just say that the Drexel opportunity could not have come at a better time! It was absolutely coincidental. What I think happened was that my leaving opened up the door for them to take this path, which was to say: “We won’t get a new director. We’ll do this in this interim period, and when a new director comes in, they won’t have the financial problem. They’ll have an image issue and a sanction issue to deal with, but at least we will have done the deed, in between professional directors. Any professional director worth his salt could not have embarked on this kind of thing.

This museum had enormous challenges from the moment that I got there and I liked those challenges. And I loved the Delaware Art Museum and I love the community! We had set up a centennial campaign with a goal of $10 million. I had raised $6 million. It was getting harder and harder.

I think selling art is one of those magic bullets that all trustees fantasize about. They don’t understand the more abstract and difficult concept of public trust.

ROSENBAUM: What should the trustees have done instead?

RICE: I think they should have brought in a fresh new director with a lot of enthusiasm for fundraising, who would raise a little bit every year.

ROSENBAUM: But you tried to do that, right?

RICE: And I had a fair amount of success. Where I didn’t succeed is that, for all my teaching, I didn’t convince them that this [selling the art] was a really bad way to go.

ROSENBAUM: What was the right way to go?

RICE: Although the mortgage we had hoped to get fell through at the last minute, there were two other possibilities on the table. They weren’t as advantageous but it is possible to renegotiate that debt.

I don’t think that idea of becoming a state institution and using the state’s Triple A [bond] rating was fully explored. There could have been a little more negotiation in that area. The museum, despite its name, gets no money from the city whatsoever, no money from the county and only small grants through the Delaware Division of the Arts.

[For more details on the museum’s finances, see Margie Fishman‘s in-depth article in the Wilmington News Journal.]

ROSENBAUM: You were trying to fundraise, but apparently you weren’t as great a success as you would have liked. To what do you attribute that?

RICE: The community is very wealthy, but it’s been accustomed for many years to having a few sugar daddies taking care of everything. That’s why so many arts organizations there are struggling now. The DuPont Company for many years was extremely generous to the arts. After the DuPont Company, when Charlie Cawley was in charge of MBNA, he gave millions of dollars to the arts. Then MBNA got bought up by Bank of America and that [the support] dried up immediately.

So almost from the moment I started working in 2005, I saw what the problem was: There wasn’t a broad enough base with individual support, and the corporate support was drying up quickly. We did broaden our individual support, but it was very slow. Then, when the recession hit, it made things that much worse because even relatively wealthy individuals felt poor after the recession. Even though their own portfolios rebounded, the philanthropy never reached the levels of before.

ROSENBAUM: After doing something that violates professional principles [selling the art to pay down debt], how do the trustees expect to get someone who is a serious professional with integrity to come in as director?

RICE: I believe they think they will recover and they’ll find somebody—maybe a younger person than they’d hoped, maybe somebody with less experience than they’d hoped. It’s a great little museum. Some young people may think: “This is a problematic board but I’ll get in there, I’ll make them all quit [!?!] and I’ll start afresh.”

ROSENBAUM: Do you have any knowledge of what artworks they’re planning to dispose of and what method they’re going to use? It seems that it’s going to be kept secret until they do it.

RICE: Why are they doing that? I could not figure that out. I find it really surprising because I’ve heard from people from Christie’s who had gone down there to look at some of their art objects and obviously were giving opinions on values and such. So I just assumed that they would work with Christie’s. It’s an auction house with which we’d had a long relationship.

ROSENBAUM: Should there be legislation to prevent these kinds of disposals?

RICE: As you know, New York State tried to put such a law on the books, and the museum directors were very negative about it [my link, not hers]. They don’t want to be legislated. The question is: To what degree will the attorney general say: “You can’t do this, because this is in the public trust”? Will [Delaware Attorney General] Beau Biden say you can’t do this? I don’t think he will.

ROSENBAUM: What future do you predict for the Delaware Art Museum?

RICE: I think they will sell the paintings, they will have the usual brouhaha and sanctions, and they will get over it. Unfortunately and sadly, they may lose their AAM [American Alliance of Museums] accreditation. They come up for reaccreditation in 2015. I think there may lose some exhibitions that are on the books. But in the end, as with the National Academy [my link, not hers], you’ve got the money in the bank.

What’s so scary about this situation is that it has the potential of causing a huge domino effect.

For an alternate view, here’s an opinion piece in the News Journal by Elva Ferrari-Graham, president of the Delaware Art Museum’s board of trustees. The newspaper also ran its own editorial sympathizing with the board’s decision.

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