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AAMD’s Maier Museum Sanction: Punishing the Victim, Hurting Themselves

Maier Museum of Art, Randolph College

Maier Museum of Art, Randolph College

Two days ago, I relayed to you, in haste, the news about the Association of Art Museum Directors’ sanction against Randolph College’s Maier Museum for selling its signature Bellows painting to beef up its endowment. I was then preparing to return home from a workation, for which my flight was mercifully(?) delayed, leaving me more time to write.

What I didn’t tell you then was how I felt about AAMD’s action.

For those of you who, four years ago, read my commentary on AAMD’s last deaccession-related sanction—against the National Academy—my current ambivalence about an edict that instructs art-museum professionals “to suspend any loans of works of art to and any collaboration on exhibitions and programs with the Maier Museum of Art” should come as no surprise.

While I have consistently and forcefully deplored museums’ sales of art to fund operations, I feel now (as I did back then) that outlawing scholarly collaborations among professional colleagues and their institutions is “nothing less than an assault on academic freedom.”

In the National Academy’s case, I argued that expulsion from AAMD membership was punishment enough, resulting in “loss of reputation, loss of collegial fellowship, and the likely loss of financial support from donors and government funders repelled by the Academy’s actions.” (The sanctions against the Academy were lifted two years later, but its director seemed less than contrite.)

In this case, AAMD has little leverage other than sanctions, because the Maier is not a member and therefore can’t be expelled. The Association of Academic Museums and Galleries (AAMG) and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) have also roundly condemned the monetization of Bellows’ “Men of the Docks.” But the Maier is not a member of AAMG. As for AAM, its director of strategic communications, Dewey Blanton, told me today that “the Maier’s membership expired at the end of last month. We have not urged members to take specific actions, but our statement sends a strong message on this situation.”

The professional group that could actually have significant leverage is the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), which accredits Randolph College. In fact, it was a warning from SACS about the need for Randolph to shore up its finances that provided an impetus for the misguided deaccession decision.

Randolph was reaccredited by SACS in 2011 and is not up for another accreditation review until 2021. Nevertheless, SACS should immediately make it clear, before Randolph follows through on its plan to sell two additional works, that it is unethical for an educational institution to bolster its endowment by disposing of important educational resources. A strong statement by SACS, unlike museum associations’ proclamations, could have some real bite.

That said, Amy Trent of the Lynchburg News & Advance reports that AAMD’s sanction may be having some effect: “At least four museums,” Trent wrote, “are expected to cancel plans to borrow artwork” from the Maier. But in so doing, AAMD members would not so much be punishing the Maier as hurting themselves.

Unsurprisingly, Randolph College hammered that point home in its Statement Regarding the AAMD, issued yesterday:

The AAMD’s action is unfortunate for those organizations across the nation who may now be denied the opportunity to learn from the wonderful works of art owned by Randolph College.

If Randolph were really so concerned about providing opportunities to learn from its collection, it would never have sold its signature masterpiece.

When I asked Christine Anagnos, spokesperson for AAMD, what she knew about reported plans by the association’s members to cancel planned loans to the Maier, she said she had no further information.

Anagnos added:

As I have stated to the AAMD members, the AAMD sanction is not intended to require any member’s museum not to fulfill a currently existing contractual obligation.

That appears to differ from what happened at the National Academy, where a show had to be canceled because of the withdrawal expected loans from AAMD members.

In his letter to AAMD members, sent shortly before the public announcement of the Maier sanction, the association’s president, Timothy Rub, suggested that AAMD would not actively police its members’ compliance with the no-collaboration edict:

While AAMD will not be overseeing your actions in this regard, members should expect that the public and members of the media may note any partnerships associated with loan of works of art or sharing of exhibitions.

As one of the “members of the media” charged with “noting partnerships,” I would look kindly on collegial cooperation, notwithstanding Randolph’s wrongful governance. Ostracizing the Maier (and its student-visitors) is punishing the victim. It’s the university, not the Maier, that made the deplorable decision to strip the museum of several treasures, against the strong objections of the museum’s then director and staff.

Bemused by the notion that enforcement of AAMD’s edict is being relegated to the media, I asked Anagnos what actions, if any, AAMD itself might take against members who ventured to collaborate with the Maier.

Her reply: “We expect our members to act in accordance with our sanction.”

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