What this week’s Deaccessioning After 2020 symposium, on Zoom from Syracuse University, should ponder (but probably won’t) is a proposal that art disposals by museums be formally regulated. Museum professionals have instinctively recoiled at the thought of government interference in their activities, insisting that they can police themselves. But from the National Academy in New York City to the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington to the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA, that hasn’t worked out too well when it comes to preventing misguided museum officials from converting works that rightly should remain in the public’s patrimony into easy money.
When James Sheehan, chief of the NYS Attorney General’s Charities Bureau, contacted me a couple of weeks ago to solicit my views on whether there should be government regulation of museum deaccessions, I replied: “I do think there’s a regulatory role, and I’ve said that for a long time.” I mentioned that the New York State Board of Regents had enacted deaccession regulations (nearly 10 years ago) and I asked whether those were still on the books. He replied: “Yes, but the Regents are not very aggressive about either communicating or enforcing that.” (Those rules pertain to museums and historical societies created in 1890 or after.)
It bears remembering that the Association of Art Museum Directors’ previously ironclad enforcement of its deaccession strictures (which have now been relaxed) are what helped keep the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection out of the clutches of the the financially strapped city’s creditors, who wanted the city-owned collection to be monetized to pay off the government’s debts. As I wrote in my 2014 Wall Street Journal article about the DIA’s near brush with disaster, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes explicitly acknowledged the influence of AAMD’s deaccessioning rules on his decision to approve a solution that safeguarded the collection: He noted that “nationally accepted standards for museums prohibit the de-acquisition of art to pay debt.”
Three prime movers in the Berkshire Museum’s deplorable 2018 deaccessions—former director Van Shields, former president Elizabeth McGraw, and attorney Mark Gold, who represented the museum in court and was also counsel to Syracuse’s Everson Museum in its lamentable disposal of its only Pollock painting—will be center-stage at this week’s Syracuse event. (Elizabeth Dunbar, the Everson’s director, is also a symposium speaker.)
The Pittsfield Three will be counterbalanced by Nicholas O’Donnell, the lawyer for three of the plaintiffs who unsuccessfully opposed in court proceedings the Berkshire Museum’s sales of its most important (and most lucrative) works. Particularly regrettable was the loss of the luminous painting below, which depicts the intersection of small-town life and culture—chamber musicians playing in the backroom of a barbershop:
By rights, it belongs in its previous home in Norman Rockwell‘s Berkshires, but it was snapped up by the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles, which is scheduled to open in 2023.
Sheehan is scheduled tomorrow (Thursday) to be on the same panel (“Legal Issues, Strategies, and the Role of the Courts,” 11:30 a.m.) with O’Donnell, Gold and Courtney Aladro, Sheehan’s counterpart at the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office. A recent addition to the symposium is tomorrow’s keynote speaker, Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art (which doesn’t deaccession), who may counterbalance the previously announced keynote speaker for Friday—Christopher Bedford, the embattled director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The symposium kicked off this evening with its first keynote speaker, Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham, co-founder and creative director of Museum Hue, who asserted that museums’ collections “should not [emphasis added] be seen as the permanent anchors of institutions” and that use of art-sale proceeds “can be opened not just for the purpose of accessions of the works, but for operational support and paying staff, especially in the midst of the pandemic.”
Given the biases and track records of the upcoming speakers, her side of the deaccession debate will likely carry the conference. As Sheehan said to me, regarding the participants’ roster: “It definitely is weighted towards one view.”
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