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From Detroit to Delaware: Why We Need Government Deaccession Regulations

William Holman Hunt, "Isabella and the Pot of Basil"  Sold at Christie's London for £2.88 million ($4.89 million)

William Holman Hunt, “Isabella and the Pot of Basil”
Sold by Delaware Art Museum for £2.88 million ($4.89 million)

In the Detroit Institute of Arts’ recent ordeal, there’s a sweeping, important takeaway for the entire museum field that went unmentioned in my Wall Street Journal article last week on the broader significance of that museum’s expensive, protracted legal battle to protect the integrity of its collection.

The legal proceedings (which, fortunately, went the DIA’s way) reinforced my previous contention that legislation or government regulations to prevent monetization of collections to pay operating and capital costs or to defray debts are urgently needed, in light of the limited ability of the Association of Art Museum Directors to enforce its standards.

As I noted in last week’s WSJ piece:

The knowing violation of these standards by several financially desperate cultural institutions (most recently, the Delaware Art Museum) has created an environment that gives a cloak of legitimacy to the notion of monetizing a museum’s art to defray debt. According to Mr. [Richard] Levin [the DIA’s lead bankruptcy attorney], Detroit’s creditors “argued that the [AAMD] guidelines were just advisory and not binding,” since several art museums had previously disregarded them.

Only government legislation or regulations can put an end to financially desperate museums’ exploitation of their own collections as monetary assets. Museums and their professional organizations have always resisted such government oversight, preferring to self-police. Even Annmarie Erickson, the DIA’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, recently told me that she would “hate to see unnecessary legislation passed, because I think in the end it often comes back to bite you.”

The New York State Board of Regents, which oversees almost all museums in the state, has provided a good model for deaccession regulations: In 2011, it adopted rules that specifically prohibit the use of museums’ art-sale proceeds for anything other than “the acquisition of collections, or the preservation, conservation or direct care of collections.”

The National Academy’s defiance of and recovery from (albeit with an asterisk) the AAMD’s condemnation proves that such censures and sanctions are insufficient to deter a struggling museum that’s determined to convert its artistic assets into cash.

In case we needed a reminder that blackballing by AAMD carries little weight with certain small institutions with big financial problems, here’s some recent news from the Wilmington News Journal about the AAMD-sanctioned Delaware Art Museum:

The Delaware Art Museum has received three gifts totaling $1.7 million to fully endow a curator position for the Bancroft collection of Pre-Raphaelite art. The Bancroft curator endowment is the museum’s first endowed position and is supported by two anonymous donations and a gift from Peggy and Ed Woolard of Wilmington.

Ironically, the first work sold by the Delaware Art Museum to help pay down its debt and beef up its endowment was one of its most important Pre-Raphaelite paintings—William Holman Hunt‘s “Isabella and the Pot of Basil.” As if putting their stamp-of-approval on the museum’s monetization of one its Pre-Raphaelite treasures, its supporters showed no qualms about endowing a curator charged with preserving the museum’s deplorably diminished collection in that same field.

“There have been a lot of debates [among museum officials] about being really tough police on little institutions,” Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, recently told me. “But no big institutions that have the resources and the professionalism have done it [violated AAMD’s deaccession standards].”

Fair enough. But public patrimony held by smaller, weaker institutions is even more deserving and needful of preservation for their communities than the collections of important, well endowed ones.

It’s for the worst-case scenarios that deaccession regulation is most urgently needed.

an ArtsJournal blog