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Deaccession Legislation: Iowa Museum Director and Nonprofits Attorney Say It’s Time

Attorney David Bright and I field questions after speaking on deaccessioning at the University of Iowa

Near the end of my talk last Wednesday at the University of Iowa (where the art museum, best known for its monumental 1943 Pollock, has been permanently closed by flooding), I advocated that the Brodsky bill, designed to regulate deaccessioning in New York State, become a national model.

I told the large, receptive audience:

I think that we need such legislation throughout the country, because, as we’ve seen with some of these cases [which I described in my presentation], self-policing by the profession has not been enough. With legislation, there would be far less ambiguity and less wiggle room.

Pamela White, interim director of the University of Iowa Museum of Art, agreed. After I finished my talk, both she and my respondent, Iowa City-based attorney David Bright (who lived up to his name by providing astute, rapid-fire legal commentary on most of the disposals I discussed) supported my call for legislation that would give a clear answer (no) to the question of whether museums and universities can sell art to defray operating expenses, capital expenses or debts. Codified guidelines would make it much easier for museum directors like Pam to deflect pressure to monetize masterpieces (the Pollock, in Iowa’s case) to address urgent financial needs (such as flood recovery).

That said, I think the Brodsky bill still needs some work before it qualifies as model legislation.

For one thing, it currently states that “in no event…shall proceeds derived from the disposal of an item or items from a museum’s collection be used for traditional and customary operating expenses.” I think other prohibited uses should be added—capital expenses and repayment of debt. I also believe that the language allowing deaccessions “to accomplish refinement of collections” is overly broad and should be scrapped.

What’s more (and most controversially), I believe that the provision requiring a museum wishing to dispose of an object to “make a good faith effort to sell or transfer such item to another museum in New York State” (or, failing that, “to another public museum”) should be made even stronger: It should require a good faith effort to TRANSFER, not to sell, the object. That’s because (as I’ve often argued) this is the public’s patrimony, which we’ve paid for with the tax deductions taken by donors and with the tax exemptions received by museums for fulfilling their public purpose. We should not have to pay for these objects twice, and museums shouldn’t address their financial needs at the expense of sister institutions.

As at the New York State museum conference where I spoke last month, I felt on Wednesday that I was preaching to the choir (although one Iowan did speak out on behalf of Fisk’s desire to sell a half-share of its Stieglitz Collection to Alice Walton‘s Crystal Bridges Museum). Maybe some day I’ll get invited to a deaccession smackdown with Art Law Blogger Donn Zaretsky, just to make things more interesting!

In the meantime, many thanks to CultureGrrl Donors 29 and 30 from my new fan base in Davenport and Solon, IA.

COMING SOON: My photo essay from the university’s former (now flood-ruined) art museum and from the Figge Art Museum, located an hour’s drive away, in Davenport on the Mississippi River (also in a flood zone, but built to stay dry), which is currently home to highlights from the UIMA’s modern and contemporary collection-in-exile. (For now, you can see some of the new Figge installation in KCRG-TV‘s video clip, here.)

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