Given the intense interest in this topic, I’m going to print in full the letter sent today by Carmine Branagan, director of the embattled National Academy, to museum directors who are members of the Association of Art Museum Directors, in which she asks AAMD to “rescind its public censure” and reconsider its deaccession rules. I should note that the views of the letter writer do not represent the views of this blogger. But I believe that the National Academy’s arguments deserve a fair airing:
December 11, 2008
Dear Museum Director,
I am writing to directly address the reasons for the National Academy of Design’s decision to deaccession, and to strongly express our concern about the AAMD’s practice of publicly censuring organizations in crisis.
Some time ago it became clear that the National Academy was in dire financial straits and would not survive unless bold steps were taken. The decision to deaccession was reached only after all other options, including efforts to launch a fund raising campaign and to sell the Academy’s home on upper Fifth Avenue, were exhausted. There is no question that without deaccessioning, one of the oldest arts institutions in New York City, one that has played a vital role in America’s cultural landscape for 183 years, would have had to close its doors forever. It is unthinkable this is what the AAMD intended!
To sell four pieces was a protracted and carefully considered decision that the Academy’s membership voted overwhelmingly (181 in favor, one against, one abstention) to support. This decision was reached in conjunction with a long-range financial and programmatic plan that places the Academy’s historic collection of American art at its center. A large portion of the Academy’s permanent collection has not been available to the public, and now the Academy will have the funds to put this culturally and historically significant collection on regular exhibition, to implement public programs and to continue investing in infrastructure that supports these efforts.
The Academy’s governing body and staff undertook an analysis of internal operations and governance from top to bottom. We are all inspired by the new possibilities and are committed make the significant changes required to create an effective governing structure that will sustain the Academy into the future.
Without reservation, we are assuring the museum community that the National Academy will uphold the highest professional standards in all aspects of the exhibition, preservation and interpretation of its collection. The Academy also adheres to the strictest guidelines in the care of any work of art loaned to the institution for exhibition. The Academy’s reputation in this regard is flawless. We will continue to strive only to the highest standards.
We sold paintings that had not regularly been in the public domain in order to achieve exactly what the AAMD states is the role of a museum: “to enhance the conservation, exhibition and study of the collection which we recognize is the essence of a museum’s service to its community and to the public.” Two paintings have been sold (Frederic Edwin Church, “Scene on the Magdalene” and Sanford Robinson Gifford, “Mt. Mansfield, Vermont”) and possibly two more will be sold (John White Alexander, “Portrait of Mrs. Hastings” and Robert Blum, “Japanese Beggars”) in order to save over 7,300 and to ensure the future of the Academy itself.
It is also important to note that the two paintings that have sold went to a private foundation that regularly places works on public view.
The Academy clearly and proactively articulated to the AAM and to the AAMD, in advance of the sale, the reality of its financial situation. We also made clear that the Academy is not an acquiring institution and presented detailed plans to use the proceeds of the sale to make the collection available in a manner that has never before been possible. Based on their criteria for deaccessioning we concluded we had no choice but to withdraw from their accreditation programs.
Without question, the guidelines of both the AAM and the AAMD are important and contribute to the well-being of cultural institutions. However, we believe that the AAMD’s action to censure the National Academy so aggressively, while offering no constructive alternative or flexibility, has only harmful and negative results.
We live in a world of unintended consequences, but there is only one outcome of the AAMD’s unrelenting and punitive position of public censure: making it significantly more difficult for the Academy to recover and to survive. Is there truly no better way? Being denied the opportunity to borrow works of art will be devastating to the Academy.
With this letter, we are asking the AAMD to rescind its public censure of the National Academy and to reconsider the narrowly focused and inflexible rules that place the very institutions they value at serious risk.
I would welcome further discussion with you regarding any of these matters.