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AAMD’s Failed Oversight: Murky “Clarification” of Its “Financial Flexibility” Resolutions

Better late that never (but not soon enough), Brent Benjamin, current president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, is attempting to backpedal from the precarious position he championed just six month ago, when AAMD temporarily loosened its tight strictures against the use of proceeds from art sales for anything other than acquisitions.

Brent Benjamin, director of the Saint Louis Art Museum

Undoubtedly prompted by uproar over the Baltimore Museum of Art’s (BMA’s) reliance on the more permissive standards as a cover for three controversial deaccessions, Benjamin signed an internal AAMD memo, promulgated yesterday, that was intended “to offer further clarification” of the relaxed guidelines. Emailed to AAMD members at 5:01 p.m., it was leaked to me just 90 minutes later by a CultureGrrl reader, who characterized it as “closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.”

Formerly paddocked in Baltimore, three thoroughbreds have been trotted over to Sotheby’s, New York, where two—a Clyfford Still and a Brice Marden—will be auctioned tomorrow (Oct. 28), if all goes according to plan. (A monumental Warhol is being sold privately by Sotheby’s.) In all, the sales are estimated to bring about $65 million. The diverse purposes to which this money would be applied (which go beyond the “direct care of collections” permitted under the new guidelines) are outlined here.

According to AAMD’s memo, “the resolutions were not put in place to incentivize deaccessioning, nor to permit museums to achieve other, non-collection-specific, goals.” But, arguably, that is exactly what is happening at the BMA. Attorney and former BMA trustee Laurence Eisenstein, who has been spearheading local opposition to the museum’s planned art disposals, immediately weaponized Benjamin’s missive, shooting it to the Maryland Attorney General’s office and circulating it among BMA trustees, “in an urgent effort to halt the sale of the Baltimore community’s cultural assets on October 28” (his words).

It’s very late, though, to think of withdrawing works that have been promoted by Sotheby’s as highlights of the evening sale of contemporary art.

Because I had felt an urgent need to seek clarification of the loosened strictures as soon as they were issued, I wrote this to AAMD’s spokesperson, Sascha Freudenheim (with a copy to Benjamin), on Apr. 16:

“Direct care of collection” [which could be defrayed by art-sale proceeds under the loosened guidelines] can cover a multitude of expenses, including conservation and operating support for climate control, utilities, capital improvements, etc. Are you leaving the definition of this totally up to the individual institutions? Could any or all of the above purposes be appropriate examples of “direct care”?

Here’s the reply:

AAMD is encouraging museums to draw on the AAM position paper that outlines a broad definition of “direct care.” While we would consider something like conservation to be part of the direct care of collections. General operating expenses [emphasis added], such as utilities or capital improvements, do not fall under AAM’s definition of “direct care.” 

That said, the FAQs at the end of AAMD’s April memo specifically state this:

If a museum deaccessions a work of art that generates $1 million, and places that $1 million into an acquisition fund, that fund can generate income. With a spending rate of 5% per year, the museum would have an additional $50,000 available to cover operating expenses [emphasis theirs].

Last April, I also asked the “slippery slope” question:

Is there a danger that this resolution may trigger a rash of art sales that might otherwise not have taken place?

Sascha then told me this:

First and foremost, AAMD has communicated to the membership, both orally and in writing, that the expectation is that museum leadership will act in good faith. It has likewise been communicated to the membership that the near-term flexibility that AAMD’s resolutions provide is not intended to incentivize art sales. Second, the best practices addressing deaccessioning, as articulated in AAMD’s Professional Practices in Art Museums, has not changed.

We now see how that “expectation” of acting in “good faith” has turned out.

For me, a key passage in AAMD’s walkback of its April memo is this:

They [the relaxed guidelines] provide a temporary and limited set of exceptions to long standing AAMD policies, but they do not change those policies. Furthermore, all of the other principles that apply to the deaccessioning process itself, as outlined in Professional Practices in Art Museums [see pp. 21-22] remain in place [emphasis and link added].

That should mean that works chosen for disposal would have to meet one or more of the listed “criteria for deaccessioning and disposal,” such as being “of poor quality and lack[ing] value for exhibition or study purposes” or being “a duplicate that has no value as part of a series.” The only lame justification that might conceivably apply to the Marden and the Still is what I’ve disparagingly called, “mission creep”—works that were previously considered to be consistent with the museum’s mission but are now deemed to fall outside it.

Benjamin himself is a flawed spokesperson for responsible deaccessioning: As CultureGrrl readers may remember, in 2007 he oversaw the Saint Louis Art Museum’s regrettable deaccession of that museum’s only painting by Mary Cassatt:

Mary Cassatt, “Françoise in Green, Sewing”: Good enough to be exhibited by the late Adelyn Breeskin (former BMA director & Cassatt expert)

As I wrote here three weeks ago, Benjamin was less than illuminating when I explicitly asked him for clarification on what constitutes “direct care” for the purpose of AAMD’s relaxed guidelines on use of deaccession proceeds.

We made the conscious decision to allow museums to create their own direct care policies [emphasis added], provided that they were in accord with the AAM’s [American Alliance of Museums’] white paper on this topic, and recognizing that there might be differences from institution to institution.

With that seeming carte blanche, it’s not hard to understand why some museums might feel emboldened to stretch the guidelines to the breaking point.

For reference, here’s Benjamin’s full message, sent yesterday to AAMD’s membership:

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