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National Academy Counters Punitive AAMD Action, Appoints Permanent Director


Carmine Branagan, named director of National Academy, New York

The National Academy story is playing out in a confrontational manner that I never would have predicted.

I had anticipated that the Association of Art Museum Directors under its new activist president, Michael Conforti, might kick the Academy out of the fold for flouting its professional standards. The inviolable rule of the association is that proceeds from art sales may be used ONLY to help pay for acquisitions, not to pay the bills.

But I had never anticipated that AAMD would enforce its censure by taking the unprecedented, punitive action of instructing its member-institutions to deny the Academy loans of art and collaboration on exhibitions. An e-mail to this effect went out yesterday to the 190 members of AAMD, the nation’s premier professional organization for art museums.

I certainly never anticipated that the frail National Academy would decide to do battle with the mighty AAMD. Far from resigning, Carmine Branagan, the interim director of the embattled Academy, has just been promoted to permanent director. This after the Association of Art Museum Directors excommunicated the institution for selling two of its most important artworks to put it on firmer financial footing.

What’s more, as of today the National Academy is no longer on the list of accredited members of the American Association of Museums, the nation’s leading organization for all museums (not just art museums). The Academy withdrew from membership after AAM issued a statement yesterday criticizing it for violating the association’s Code of Ethics. That code stipulates that sale proceeds may be used only for “acquisition or direct care of collections.”

Dewey Blanton, AAM’s press spokesperson, yesterday told me that the association’s Accreditation Commission had planned to review the circumstances surrounding Academy’s deaccessions. The Academy’s withdrawal preempts that review and the removal of accreditation that it might have engendered.

Branagan today told me that she was about to send a letter to AAMD, arguing in favor of deaccessioning in desperate circumstances. She said that, “from the point of view of institutions around the country that are struggling,” the letter would address “how we should be pulling together.”

AAMD’s speedy action, taken after a unanimous vote by 16 of its 19 trustees, could have the paradoxical effect of hastening the demise of an
institution that had sold works in a last-ditch attempt to prevent its demise. The Academy’s future
exhibitions and programs will be seriously hobbled, as will its
ability to raise funds. Instead of deaccession-or-die, it could now be

I have never credited the deaccession-or-die argument and I still don’t. That was Fisk University’s justification for its attempt to monetize its Stieglitz Collection. When it was instructed by a judge not only to keep the collection but to get it back up on public view, it somehow managed to raise funds the old-fashioned way, allowing it both to display the collection and to keep the university afloat. I believe that deaccessioning is the easy way out, even more tempting today as museums grapple with Dow-ravaged endowments and distressed donors.

But there has been considerable push-back (including here, here and here) against AAMD’s strong action. Branagan surprised me today when I called her (not expecting her to pick up), by saying that she thought that my coverage of this issue could actually serve the worthwhile purpose of “giving us the opportunity to discuss this in a way that could be constructive.” She said that she has been “getting calls from many people who are in shock at what they did.”

As for those who are in shock at what Branagan did, here’s an excerpt from yesterday’s AAM statement:

When a museum starts trading its collection for financial gain, rather than for strictly scholarly reasons, it ceases to honor its resolution of permanence and begins to function more as an art or antiques dealer with not-for-profit papers of incorporation than as an institution in service to society for the long term.

Perhaps Branagan should peruse AAM’s Finding Calm in Crisis: A Museum Survival Guide.

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