Where did our art go? (illustration by Sophia Martineck for my 2005 NY Times deaccession Op-Ed)
Back in November 2005, I published a NY Times Op-Ed piece, For Sale: Our Permanent Collection, which ended this way:
When museums cross too many lines [which I argued had already happened], the public’s elected representatives
must step in. Otherwise, it won’t be long before pragmatic museum
trustees sell a Degas “Toilette” to pay for the toilets.
Now, four years later, ArtsJournal blogger Judith Dobrzynski is arguing in the same forum that the time has come to sell the art to pay the plumber, so long as the disposal will not “irreparably damage the collection” and is deemed absolutely necessary to keep those toilets (and/or the rest of the museum) running.
In The Art of the Deal, Judy’s Saturday NY Times Op-Ed piece, she incompletely summarizes the anti-deaccession argument of those of us who believe that the guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors should be scrupulously followed:
The strict constructionists believe that once selling art to cover
operating costs is allowed, it will become the first resort in bad
times, not the last.
Actually, we strict constructionists don’t believe that such sales should be allowed at all, even as a last resort. The “slippery slope” argument is just the kicker. In truth, there’s no such thing as a single “last resort.” Smarter management, intensified fundraising, improved marketing, innovative earned-income strategies, and (truly the last resort) temporary cuts of expenses and staff are the right ways to meet financial crises. Selling the art is a seductively easy way to raise cash for operations and debt reduction. But it’s the wrong way: Art is the raison d’être of museums and the “deaccession or die” argument is specious.
Judy had previously believed that museums should “use the proceeds [from deaccessions] according to AAMD rules.” But she now believes that desperate times call for desperate measures: She notes that because “museums everywhere are having trouble making ends meet,” deaccession rules now need to be loosened.
I had always thought that rules were meant to be followed not only when it’s easy to do so, but especially when it’s hard.
True, Dobrzynski doesn’t want to make it easy for museums to break the time-honored prohibition against using art proceeds for operations and debt reduction. She recommends that the very organizations that established and vigorously defended that rule now relax it, assuming the role of enablers of desperation deaccessioning. She wants such groups as the AAMD, the Association of College and University Museums
and Galleries and the American Association of
Museums to become de facto Deaccession Commissions, examining a foundering institution’s finances and collections to judge whether it should be granted a special dispensation to sell its art to pay its bills.
Why Dobrzynski thinks that the above-mentioned professional organizations would want to (let alone be equipped to) take on this dicey regulatory role is anyone’s guess. Where would they draw the line between museums that should be allowed to monetize collections and those that should redouble their efforts to improve the bottom line by other means? And why would she think that institutions (like the National Academy) that are intent on refilling their coffers through art sales would voluntarily submit to such “arbitration”?
Far better would be an expansion of what AAMD already does: At a session devoted to the economic crisis during its January 2009 mid-winter meeting, museum directors were encouraged to
identify themselves as “individuals in need” and “individuals who can
help,” as Michael Conforti, AAMD’s president, told me in an interview for his Wall Street Journal profile. Similarly, Michael Kaiser, president of Kennedy Center, last year established an Arts in Crisis mentorship programs for performing-arts institutions in trouble. AAMD’s efforts would be better spent formalizing and extending its own mentorship initiative than dishing out deaccession exemptions, as Judy recommends.
Meanwhile, whatever happened to the Brodsky Bill, which would provide needed regulation of deaccessions by museums in New York State? Let’s go to Daniel Grant‘s Portrait of a Challenging Year, which, in last Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, detailed the good, the bad and the ugly in 2009 museum operations.
New York State Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky (working with the New
York State Board of Regents and the Museum Association of New York) put
forward a bill that would prohibit museums from using sale proceeds
“for traditional and customary operating expenses.”
No action on that
legislation has been taken yet.