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Deaccession Legislation Showdown: Brodsky Blasts Metropolitan Museum

Harold Holzer, Metropolitan Museum’s senior vice president for external affairs
Photo by Don Pollard

While I give NY State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky high marks for his efforts to craft legislation regulating museum deaccessioning, he loses some points for being more abrasive than diplomatic in his attitude towards museums that are understandably unenthusiastic about being subjected to increased government regulation and reporting requirements.

The museums that would be most significantly affected by the Brodsky Bill are the small minority that were chartered by the State Legislature, rather than the State Board of Regents—those that received their charters before 1890.

Those venerable institutions are not subject to the deaccession regulations promulgated by the Regents. That body just renewed, for a period expiring Sept. 14, its emergency amendment (scroll down to text of “PROPOSED AMENDMENT OF SECTION 3.27”), which lists the allowable reasons for deaccessioning and which bars use of the proceeds for to pay for operating expenses, capital expenses or debt.

New York’s National Academy, censured for its secret deaccessions by the Association of Art Museum Directors, is one of the institutions chartered by the legislature and therefore not subject to Regents regulations. Another is the Hispanic Society of America, which strongly objects to the Brodsky bill for (among other things) instigating a jurisdictional “turf war” with the (usually laissez-faire) State Attorney General. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is also among the legislatively chartered institutions. The Assemblyman feels that the Met, not happy about increased regulation, has been dismissive of his overtures to resolve any differences.

And Brodsky’s steamed:

What we got from the Met and other institutions [including the Hispanic Society] was the back of their hand. Their position, as I understand it, is not an objection to a specific provision of the bill. Their objection is they don’t want, in the end, to be accountable….

If the bill doesn’t pass, there will be a two-tier system, where the privileged few [the older institutions] escape any public accountability, and everybody else will live under a regulatory system [created by the Board of Regents] which can’t be as good as the bill. It’s about the notion that collections are held in public trust. At a time when the bean-counters are gaining primacy at many institutions, there have got to be rules that preserve these collections for the public….

In the end, the Met’s longstanding hostility to transparency and accountability is what has driven this dispute….When they said they had problems [with the bill], I asked them what they were, because we solved problems for the Metropolitan Opera and the Museum of Natural History. What it came down to in the end is that they [Met officials] don’t want to be publicly accountable to the legislature or the Board of Regents.

One of the things I said to them was, “If you want to have a discussion, let’s not wait till the fall; let’s have it now. I’ll call a meeting for June 5.” The Met said, absolutely yes. And then all of a sudden, all of them were busy [as were invited representatives from the Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim Museum and Whitney Museum, according to notes the sent to Brodsky]. There clearly was a coordinated attempt to delay.

Here, in full, is a letter sent to Brodsky by the Met’s director, Tom Campbell, dated June 3:

Thank you for your letter of June 2 [inviting museum officials to the June 5 meeting—short notice]. We greatly appreciate your interest in important museum issues. As you know, I would welcome the opportunity to further discuss your proposed legislation pertaining to deaccessioning.

Unfortunately, neither I nor my senior advisors on this matter are able to attend the meeting on June 5th. But I have asked Emily Rafferty, president, Harold Holzer, senior vice president for external affairs, Thomas Schuler, chief government affairs officer, and Sharon H. Cott, senior vice president, secretary and general counsel, to work with you on further exploration of this issue and the proposed legislation. Of course, I plan to keep myself closely informed on this matter and its ultimate resolution.

And here’s what Holzer told me when I spoke to him on Monday:

We thought that the bill, as we first saw it, had some serious flaws….To tackle one problem, the bill would place the legislatively created, larger institutions of this state under the jurisdiction of the Board of Regents. That is a sea change in the governance of museums. Our position is that this requires very serious discussion.

At the same time, this museum follows the same ethical practices that the Board of Regents asks of the institutions that report to it, and that is AAMD rules on deaccessioning….The Met, Natural History, other big museums are already following best museum practices. There’s such a thing as over-legislating and over-regulating.

The bill requires the creation, rather promptly, of a registry of works of art. The Met has two million works of art. In this moment in the economy, we don’t have the millions and millions of dollars it would take to do this….To devote staff, limited staff at this point, to transferring from ink on index cards to a computer system is going to take a very long time….

This bill seeks to undo 139 years of reporting as it existed, and of a board running this institution impeccably, under best museum practices. I think it’s going to take a serious and long and exhaustive discussion—not to delay the legislation, but to discuss this sea change in governance that is being proposed here.

It’s not just the legislatively chartered institutions that have expressed reservations about Brodsky’s bill. Here‘s a letter commenting on the bill by the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on Art Law and here‘s a June 1 letter sent to Brodsky by 13 institutions (including the Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney, Guggenheim, Jewish Museum and Studio Museum of Harlem), asking that the bill “be tabled at this time” to allow more time “for further comment and dialogue.”

Perhaps the most extensive exchange of letters on this occurred between Brodsky and Richard Armstrong, director of the (Regents-chartered) Guggenheim, who objected to the bill’s “legislating the particular criteria a museum must consider in determining whether to deaccession an item in its collection.” This, he said, would “stifle academic freedom.”

If that’s the case, then the deaccession criteria of AAMD must also stifle academic freedom, because the bill’s criteria closely track the museum association’s professional guidelines. As far as I’m concerned, anything that might discourage Armstrong from selling off some of his museum’s celebrated Kandinskys is a good thing. He expressed an interest [via] in culling the museum’s 114 works by that artist, in a recent online conversation (at the 39-minute mark) with Max Anderson, the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s director.

“The collection needs to be shaped. It’s partly misshapen,” Armstrong explained to a somewhat startled Anderson, who quickly recovered his poise, perceiving an opportunity for his own institution: “We’re very interested in Kandinskys!” he exclaimed.

And I’m very interested that the University of Iowa Museum of Art finally got the initially resistant NY Times to print a needed correction (scroll to bottom) for Robin Pogrebin‘s Brodsky Bill article.

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