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AAMD Sanctions Berkshire Museum and La Salle University Art Museum (& what it should do next)

We knew this was coming (for what it’s worth).

The Association of Art Museum Directors today issued this statement:

The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) announced today that its Board of Trustees has voted to impose sanctions on the Berkshire Museum and the La Salle University Art Museum. This follows the decision made by each institution to use the proceeds from recent art sales to support operating budgets or expansion initiatives, a decision that violates one of the core principles of art museums. These actions are in opposition to AAMD’s policy that such funds must be used only to support acquisitions of art….

The scene at Sotheby’s American art sale on Wednesday, when four Berkshire Museum works (including a Rockwell) were offered
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

AAMD communicated with both the Berkshire Museum and La Salle University, expressing clearly that alternative approaches to raising funds should be considered and offering to support that process by drawing on the knowledge and experience of its member museum directors. AAMD also conveyed that violations of its policy on the use of funds from the sale of art could result in sanctions being imposed by the Association….

These sanctions, which are effective immediately, ask that each of the Association’s 243 members refrain from lending or borrowing works of art to either the Berkshire Museum or the La Salle University Art Museum, and to also refrain from collaborating with either institution on exhibitions [emphasis added].

If either institution comes forward to demonstrate that they have not applied the proceeds of the recent sales in accordance with their publicly stated intentions—and instead will use these funds to support acquisitions, in accordance with the Association’s policy and field-wide best practices—then AAMD will consider whether the withdrawal of sanctions is appropriate.

There’s an inaccuracy in AAMD’s first paragraph: The La Salle University Art Museum didn’t make the decision “to use the proceeds from recent art sales to support operating budgets or expansion initiatives.” The university made that decision, imposing it on the museum. LSUAM’s director, Klare Scarborough (whom I’ve several times attempted to contact), has, to my knowledge, never been heard from on this matter. (Others at the university alleged to me that she was instructed to remain silent.)

The leadership of the Philadelphia university and the Pittsfield, MA, museum have essentially told our country’s leading professional organization for art museums to bug off. They knew full well that they were likely to be sanctioned. The threat was no deterrent. The threat of sanctions (ultimately imposed) also failed to stop deplorable disposals by the National Academy, Maier Museum and Delaware Art Museum.

I have always had mixed feelings about AAMD’s sanctions because I regard them as an assault on the academic freedom of its own members (see the italicized paragraph, above), let alone the renegade institution. What I don’t have mixed feelings about is the urgent need for government regulations or legislation to stop museums from raiding the public’s patrimony to fund capital projects, pay operating expenses or defray deficits. New York State’s regulations provide a good model for such restrictions.

If AAMD is serious about stopping the pernicious monetization of collections, it should give up on issuing impotent edicts and take immediate action to push for needed government regulation. Its head-in-the-sand approach to the growing crisis is exemplified by its failure to include deaccession deliberations on the published agenda for its recent annual meeting.

Also needed is a comprehensive educational program for new directors across the country, to make sure they understand and are committed to best practices, with guidance on how best to communicate this to their boards. Call it Ethics Boot Camp.

It’s time for Madeleine Grynsztejn, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, just designated as AAMD’s new president, to prove she’s up to the task of exerting strong, action-oriented leadership on this pressing issue.

Madeleine Grynsztejn
Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

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