In my previous report on Syracuse University’s Deaccessioning After 2020 virtual symposium, I highlighted a few eyebrow-raising comments by a new crop of museum directors and curators [and their attorney-enabler], “who have embraced social and political progressiveness…, even if that means sacrificing important artworks acquired by distinguished predecessors in order to bankroll acquisitions of works of the moment [and also to boost staff salaries], catering to the tastes and predilections of a younger, more diverse constituency” (my words).
Now let’s hear from some of the outnumbered but (to my mind) wiser participants who championed a less drastic approach. Below are some lessons from old school—conference speakers who acknowledged the need for progress, but defended what former Metropolitan Museum director Philippe de Montebello once called (in response to my question) “the primacy of art” in the museum’s mission:
—Kaywin Feldman, director, National Gallery of Art, who said her “point of view is conservative,” was belatedly added as an introductory keynote speaker, perhaps to counterbalance the tradition-challenging ideas of the concluding keynote speaker, Christopher Bedford of the Baltimore Museum of Art:
The National Gallery does not deaccession. Having directed four museums, sized small, medium and large in four different regions of the country, my feelings about the use of proceeds from deaccessioning come from previous experience….On each occasion, if I had told the board we could sell something of the collection to balance the budget [i.e., help defray staff salaries] they would have done so in a heartbeat. [Several speakers at the conference echoed this.]
Armed with the AAMD guidelines [which have now been relaxed], we soldiered on, figured it out and raised the necessary money. Having said that, I do believe that if museum leadership truly thinks they have exhausted all options and must sell works or close their doors, far be it for me to judge them. [That’s a bit like trying to have it both ways, which I guess I was also guilty of, at the end of this post.]
Here’s a better look at the painting that Feldman, chose as her symposium backdrop, because, “I thought it would be appropriate for these early years of decision-making”:
—Thomas Campbell, director, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (and formerly of the Met), who expanded upon his previous “slippery path” comments, in which he decried the Association of Art Museum Directors’ temporary relaxation of deaccession strictures:
It [AAMD’s action] takes the pressure off our boards to help raise money for the institution. Kaywin Feldman said at the beginning of the conference that in the four institutions she worked at before the National Gallery, the board would have been happy to sell art for operating costs, and I’ve yet to meet a museum director who hasn’t been asked the same question many times by their trustees: “Why can’t we do this?”
—James Sheehan, Chief, Charities Bureau, New York State Attorney General’s Office, who elucidated the legal considerations governing deaccessions:
Donor intent is at the top of the hierarchy of legal considerations, as the law is written. Second is the gift instrument [the document conveying the gift]. Third is Regents’ regulations [which apply only to museums New York State]….If the donor intent is clearly expressed, that overrides the deaccession policy. So if you have a white elephant on your property and you want it out of there, but you promised the donor you would never remove it, too bad!
—Glenn Lowry, director, Museum of Modern Art, on whether the use of deaccession funds to care for a museum’s collection, as defined by the institution’s own collection-care policy, is permissible, under the revised rules of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB):
FASB has made it explicitly clear that the use of deaccession funds to acquire works of art or to care for collections, as defined by an institution’s policy around collection-care, is a permissible use of funds. That issue is dead and resolved [a statement that Tom Campbell disputed].
If we’re going to deaccession works of art for uses other than acquisition, then, for me, the proceeds should be put in an endowment that can be used either to support those other initiatives or always available, if needed, for further acquisitions. If you do that, you obviate all the FASB anxieties, because you have not expended the funds; you have preserved them for use, potentially even of accessioning….
What I feel is: You can’t have a good conversation [about the use of sale proceeds] in he middle of a crisis [i.e., the pandemic].
—Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, who pragmatically acknowledged the merits of both sides of the deaccession dialectic, and gamely tried to steer between them (a bit like trying to navigate an oversized container ship through the Suez Canal).
Anne provided a needed corrective to the recent declarations by some commentators that museum trustees should be condemned for not entirely defraying museums’ outsized budgetary shortfalls from their own pockets.
Here’s the exasperated counterattack by Pasternak:
Can I just stand up for boards? It’s really made me crazy how people are just, like: “All these museums have billionaires on their board and they really should be paying for everything.”
I find that so perplexing at best. First of all, very few institutions have bunches of billionaires on the boards. I happen to be blessed with a very generous board of directors whose giving keeps increasing. But we can’t expect a public institution that was founded over 200 years ago to be solely funded by a handful of privileged people [emphasis added]. I find it so bizarre that that’s even a conversation out there.
I think it’s time to get real about boards. They’re under such scrutiny that you have to be courageous to be on a museum board these days [and she might have added: “to be a museum director these days“]. So I think we need to have a real conversation about what it means to run these institutions and the roles of boards who, in many of our cases, are already being extraordinarily responsible and generous, and not just look to a handful of people to solve all of our problems.
Her remark about “a handful of privileged people” gave me flashbacks to my own shock, as a naïve young critic, when I first learned that museums were governed by boards chosen, in large measure, for their ability to make large donations, rather than for their knowledge of art and museum management. It’s crucial to have a wide variety of funding sources—not just the economically and socially elite who dominate the boards. Otherwise, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”
The commentator at the conclave who hewed most closely to old-school standards was a lesser known but respected museum director, Andria Derstine of Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum. As it happens, the conference’s more radical keynote speaker, Christopher Bedford of the Baltimore Museum, attended Derstine’s current professional home, Oberlin College.
Here’s Derstine’s restorative prescription for salubrious museum practice:
I don’t advocate the use of the proceeds from from deaccessioning for anything other than acquiring artworks for several reasons. One is frankly the slippery slope argument: AAMD for years held a bright line on this and that has been incredibly important and helpful to institutions.
My perspective has always been not to bite off more than you can chew: Raise funds for your initiatives in the traditional ways—relationships, donor cultivation, grants, the quality and authenticity of your programs, your scholarship and your community outreach. I don’t feel it’s appropriate to go for a short-term gains that will almost certainly bring a long-term loss, by selling from the collection to fund activities other than collection development.
I say long-term loss for two reasons: I believe it would be betraying the intent of both past and present donors and deeply discouraging to future donors to sell for other reasons, as well as potentially very detrimental to museums’ and their governing institutions’ nonprofit status. Donors gave their works or funds restricted to the purchase of works believing they were doing so for educational purposes, and the museum accepted them as cultural heritage held for posterity, not as fungible capitalized assets.
Selling work would harm effort to solicit future support by sending the message that private support is unnecessary, since additional items from the art museum’s collection could always be sold to cover budget shortfalls….It is for us to properly steward these works and our overall collections for posterity.
If a future deaccession conference is planned under more balanced auspices, Derstine deserves a keynote spot.
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