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Damning DAM: AAMD Sanctimoniously Sanctions the Delaware Art Museum

William Holman Hunt, "Isabella and the Pot of Basil"  Sold at Christie's London for £2.88 million ($4.89 million)

William Holman Hunt, “Isabella and the Pot of Basil”
Sold at Christie’s, London, for £2.88 million ($4.89 million)

When will the Association of Art Museum Directors wake up and realize that its sanctions against museums that flout its deaccession standards have little or no power over financially desperate museums lacking strong professional governance?

As you’ve probably already heard, AAMD today announced that it had sanctioned the Delaware Art Museum for its sale yesterday at Christie’s, London, of one of its most important Pre-Raphaelite paintings—William Holman Hunt‘s “Isabella and the Pot of Basil”—to help pay down debts and beef up endowment.

Because it has lacked a director since the departure of Danielle Rice last August, the Delaware Art Museum is not an AAMD member. Until today, however, the museum was a member of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), whose Accreditation Commission has just announced that it “unanimously voted to remove the Delaware Art Museum’s accredited status.”

As demonstrated by other art sales that incurred AAMD’s wrath—at the National Academy and Randolph College’s Maier Museum—its sanctions do not strike much fear in the hearts of the renegades.

Bemoaning how “deeply troubled and saddened” they are by Delaware’s actions may help AAMD’s arbiters of professional standards feel good about their high mindedness. Not only is this whining of little effect, but AAMD’s members are hurting themselves as much as the offending museum when they prohibit collaborations of any kind with professional colleagues at a wayward institution.

What if the Metropolitan Museum’s current Pre-Raphaelite show, for example, had included some loans from Delaware, whose jettisoned Hunt is part of its deep collection in that area? Would the Met have been honor-bound to expel the art owned by an excommunicated institution?

As it happens, there isn’t any art from Delaware in that show, a Met spokesperson today told me. But the larger point remains: Barring the exchange of art and scholarly knowledge among colleagues is not something that AAMD should be party to, even if it’s with the best of intentions.

Meanwhile, the Delaware museum is still poised to monetize up to three more works, with Winslow Homer‘s Milking Time” and Alexander Calder‘s “Black Crescent” having been identified in the media as likely prospects, given their removal from the galleries and from the museum’s collections database. We can only hope that the anemic auction performance of the Hunt, which fetched a hammer price of only £2.5 million, against a presale estimate of £5 million to £8 million, may give them pause: This strategy isn’t working, just as it didn’t work for the National Academy, which, more than five years after its deplorable deaccessions, remains financially challenged.

The only way that professional sanctions may have some bite is if they have an economic impact on the institutions that are using to wrongful methods to right their finances. AAMD should try to convince major foundation and government funders that museums violating professional standards are unworthy of their support. Only then will debt-driven deaccessions be demonstrably counterproductive.

In the effect that it may have on potential funders, AAM’s de-accreditation may be worth more than AAMD’s sanctions. As things stand, though, the comments made to me two months ago by the Delaware Art Museum’s former director Rice (who deplores the deaccessions), seem sadly prescient:

I think they [the Delaware Art Museum] 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….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.

The best way (probably the only way) to arrest this “domino effect” is through legislation or government regulations (like those adopted three years ago in New York). AAMD should stop whistling in the wind and draft a proposed bill.

I doubt that this will ever happen.

an ArtsJournal blog