The Metropolitan Museum’s controversial consideration of adopting the Association of Art Museum Directors’ relaxed deaccession standards has now become a fait accompli: As the Met’s spokesperson confirmed to me yesterday, the museum’s board at its meeting this week “updated [its] guidelines to align with the temporary AAMD policy.” That policy allows proceeds from art sales to be applied for a period of two years to “care of the collection,” not just to art acquisitions—AAMD’s previously inviolable principle of ethical conduct. (The Met’s definition of “collection care,” for the purposes of implementing the new policy, is here.)
To the best of my knowledge, there’s been no official announcement of this major (if temporary) change, although the Met did report the election at that same meeting of three new trustees.
This dubious deaccession development, driven by the financial challenges of the pandemic, caught the attention (in advance), not only of some prominent artworld figures (most notably former Met director Thomas Campbell), but also of at least one official in the New York Attorney General’s Office.
James Sheehan: Where have you been all my life?
As someone who has repeatedly criticized state regulators who behaved “more like lapdogs” than watchdogs, I was pleasantly surprised when Sheehan contacted me as “obviously one of the most outspoken and knowledgeable people” (his words) regarding the ethics of deaccessions. Notwithstanding his seven years working in the Charities Bureau of the New York Attorney General’s Office (which oversees nonprofits, including museums), he wanted to pick my brains in preparation for his participation on a panel entitled, “Legal Issues, Strategies, and the Role of the Courts”—part of a three-day virtual symposium, Deaccessioning After 2020 (Mar. 17-19) at Syracuse University. He’s also thinking about what action, if any, to take regarding the Met’s planned use of art-sale proceeds for “care of the collection,” which, in his words, could encompass costs for “all the guards, all the executives. Where do you stop with that?”
Before sharing my views (which are already well known to CultureGrrl readers), I had to warn Jim that I had been personally “deaccessioned” from that conference: I had accepted an invitation from Vanja Malloy, director and chief curator of the Syracuse University Art Museum, to speak on a panel entitled, “Commentators and Critics: Productive Discourse in the Media.” One of my co-panelists was to be Sebastian Smee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former art critic at Boston Globe (now at the Washington Post).
CORRECTION: Smee has now informed me that he had “never received or accepted any invitation to speak on a panel at the Syracuse conference. I declined an invitation to give a keynote to avoid any perceived conflict of interest, because I am reporting on this issue. I declined it as soon as I received it.” Malloy had written to me that Smee was one of the “other participants we invited” for the (now defunct) panel of “Commentators and Critics” (on which I had been asked to participate).
Among other illustrious speakers to appear during the conference are: Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art; Tom Campbell, now director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Michael Conforti, former director of the Clark Art Institute.
Six days later, I was disinvited, in an email sent by the conference manager: “Unfortunately, the panel didn’t come together after all, so we have decided to pull that session from the agenda.”
Huh?!? Maybe I’m being overly defensive, but I couldn’t help thinking that my inclusion had incurred backlash from other scheduled participants in the Syracuse symposium, who had been targets of my pointed critiques of deaccession transgressions.
—Serial deaccessioner Lowry, who candidly admitted in an interview with Charlotte Burns (then employed by Sotheby’s in New York, a deaccessions conduit) that he believes “one should deaccession rigorously in order to either acquire more important works of art or build endowments to support programming. Because for me, in the end, it’s all about being sufficiently well-capitalized to program intelligently and to have as few works of art in storage as possible.” Perhaps MoMA’s most deplorable disposal was a Cubist landmark, “Houses on the Hill, Horta de Ebro,” which preeminent Picasso expert John Richardson had described to me as “one of “the rarest things in the world….I’m still shuddering and shaking.”
—Elizabeth Dunbar, director of the symposium’s hometown institution—Syracuse’s Everson Museum, which offloaded its only Jackson Pollock painting, “in order to refine, diversify, and build the museum’s collection for the future” (in the words of its online justification).
—Attorney Mark Gold, counsel to both the Everson and the Berkshire Museum in defending their widely criticized deaccessions; Elizabeth McGraw, past president of the Berkshire Museum, and Van Shields, past director of that museum, both of whom oversaw its deaccessioning spree of 22 of its most important works, including Norman Rockwell‘s beloved “Shuffleton’s Barbershop”:
If you have any doubts about which side of the deaccession debate the upcoming symposium is weighted towards, consider who was chosen to give its Keynote Address on “The Evolving Role of Collections in Serving the Museum’s Mission”—Christopher Bedford, the embattled director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Likely to offer some counterbalance to the “deaccessionistas” are: former Clark Art Institute director Michael Conforti (who was AAMD’s president when it blackballed the National Academy for its stealth sales of two Hudson River School paintings to fund operating expenses); Nicholas O’Donnell, the attorney who represented some of those who raised objections in court to the Berkshire Museum’s sales; William Eiland, director of the Georgia Museum of Art and former co-chair of AAMD’s Deaccessioning Task Force. [An earlier version of this post mistakenly called Eiland the former director of the GMA. He is its current director.]
As for Sheehan: He had been involved (ultimately unsuccessfully) in trying to forestall the Seward House sales and the Jamestown Library sales. He now says that he does not “think it’s a good idea to give the [museum] boards discretion to do whatever they want, because it’s the assets of the organization” (not to mention of the public).
Here’s what I don’t want: I don’t want I-90 to become a corridor to Arkansas [an allusion to Alice Walton‘s Crystal Bridges Museum].
The Wal-Mart heiress in 2005 famously purchased Asher B. Durand‘s “Kindred Spirits” from the New York Public Library for a reported $35 million. The Catskills (depicted in this painting) went to the Ozarks:
Sheehan began our conversation by telling me he “wanted to get your sense of where the [deaccession] world is going, whether you agree with it, and whether there’s a regulatory role [for the Attorney General] or it’s something we should let the museum world work out for itself.” To my mind, the “museum world” has had time enough to “work [this] out for itself.” It hasn’t gone well. If you’ve clicked the links in this post to my many opinion pieces in CultureGrrl and the Wall Street Journal, you know full well what my response was to Sheehan’s investigative queries.
Despite my having been Silenced in Syracuse, you can always experience, right here on CultureGrrl, a full concert recital by the Deaccession Diva.
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