With its announcement last week of the sale of one of its most beloved works—Winslow Homer‘s “Milking Time”—as well as Andrew Wyeth‘s “Arthur Cleveland,” the Delaware Art Museum claimed to have closed one of its “most difficult chapters.”
Not so fast.
Details about the amount of the money received by the museum from its four deplorable deaccessions, as reported by Margie Fishman of the Wilmington News Journal, suggest that DAM’s difficulties are not over.
In announcing its deaccession plans back in March 2014, the museum had stated:
The funds generated from the sale, projected to be $30 million, will repay the full balance of the Museum’s $19.8 million bond debt and replenish the Museum’s endowment, which will place the Museum on a firm financial basis for the future [emphasis added].
But Fishman revealed last week that the four works had, in fact, “sold for less than $19 million” not the anticipated $30 million. Not only did this not “replenish the endowment,” but some $1 million had to be withdrawn from it to fully defray the bond debt, Mike Miller, the museum’s CEO, acknowledged.
In other words, the strategy of desperation deaccessions, which violated the museum field’s written professional guidelines, didn’t work well for Delaware, just as it didn’t solve the problems of the National Academy (which was censured by AAMD). The Academy remained financially challenged, despite its 2008 disposals of important works by Frederic Edwin Church and Sanford Robinson Gifford to fund programs, operations, fundraising initiatives and gallery improvements.
AAMD’s professional guidelines dictate that art-sale proceeds be used only to fund art purchases, not to pay for operating expenses, capital projects or debt reduction. By flouting those guidelines, DAM incurred the sanctions of the Association of Art Museum Directors and was also de-accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.
Notwithstanding the serious shortfall in his institution’s art-sale proceeds, Miller exulted (in DAM’s official announcement, linked at the top) that “we reached our most important goal—keeping the museum open and thriving.”
Whether “thriving” means “financially sustainable” is still an open question. My repeated emails and voicemails to the museum, requesting more information about how much money is currently in the endowment and how much fundraising progress has been made since last year’s deaccession announcement are unanswered at this writing. (I’ll update if and when I learn more.)
The News Journal had this to say about DAM’s fundraising efforts:
The Wilmington museum is investing in staff, educational outreach and donor recruitment to try to cushion against future financial instability….Donors have committed millions [how many millions?] over the next several years, including a $500,000 operations grant from the Longwood Foundation.
As I asserted after DAM was sanctioned, AAMD’s disciplinary measures have little practical impact on institutions determined to use their collections as ATMs. Only legislation or government regulations can effectively curb the monetization by financially endangered institutions of museum-quality works that should remain in the public domain.
Judith Dobrzynski noted in her Real Clear Arts blog that at least one museum is already disregarding the mandate for AAMD members to ostracize DAM: The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s touring show of Latino art is still slated to appear there next year.
According to the News Journal, Miller asserted that “the Smithsonian does not follow museum association sanctions.”
A SAAM spokesperson clarified its position, in response to my query:
Mr. Miller is incorrect in saying that the Smithsonian American Art Museum does not follow AAMD sanctions. We oppose any museum selling parts of its collection to pay the bills, and we appreciate the reasons AAMD imposed sanctions against the Delaware Art Museum.
In the instance of SAAM’s traveling exhibition “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art,” we decided to honor the agreement that had been in place since 2013, which was signed by Mr. Miller’s predecessor, Danielle Rice [my link, not SAAM’s]. DAM was published in the exhibition’s 2014 catalogue as a venue for the exhibition.
But DAM is not Rice’s museum any more. SAAM’s decision runs directly counter to AAMD’s call for its members (including SAAM’s director, Elizabeth Broun) to “suspend any loans of works of art to, and any collaborations on exhibitions with, the Delaware Art Museum.” After it was excommunicated by AAMD (which has since lifted its sanctions), the National Academy had to rejigger its exhibition schedule because of the loss of promised loans from AAMD members.
That said, I sympathize with Broun. I’ve always questioned (as in the post linked directly above) a disciplinary policy that prohibits professional collaborations for the public’s benefit. That’s why I favor government regulation as the most appropriate means to safeguard collections. Preventing worthwhile projects from taking place because of deplorable deaccessions is a lose-lose policy.
Miller, the museum’s chief financial officer before Rice resigned, vowed to the News Journal that DAM would never partake in another art sale like the ones that have alienated its colleagues. Maybe so. But that won’t stop other museums from following this bad example, trying to solve financial problems the expedient way, instead of the old-fashioned way—through adroit management, rigorous expense control and resourceful fundraising.