It’s getting harder to take the Association of Art Museum Directors seriously as an arbiter of professional standards.
Long regarded as the definer and defender of art-museum ethics, AAMD has compromised its credibility and its claim to authority by crushing to quicksand its formerly bedrock principle regarding collection management: Having repeatedly maintained that the proceeds from sales of works from an art museum’s collection could properly be applied to one purpose only—the acquisition of other works—AAMD has now added “direct care of works of art” as an acceptable use of art-sale proceeds.
The “direct care” standard, at first adopted as a temporary measure (through Apr. 10, 2022) but now made permanent, puts AAMD in line with the guidelines of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB)—looser requirements that AAMD’s leaders had previously regarded as inadequate to the task of safeguarding the masterpieces owned by art museums.
Here’s how AAM’s standards for deaccessioning and FASB’s new standards were described in the Metropolitan Museum’s FY 2020 Annual Report:
In March 2019, the FASB [the Financial Accounting Standards Board] issued ASU 2019-03, Updating the Definition of Collections. The new ASU aligns the US GAAP definition of collections with the American Alliance of Museum’s current policy regarding the management of collections. Under the amendments, the definition of collections will be expanded to allow the proceeds from sales of collection items to be used in the direct care of existing collection items. Entities can allow proceeds to be used for both direct care and acquisitions, or they can retain the narrower definition and continue to restrict the use of proceeds to the acquisition of new collection items consistent with the current US GAAP definition [emphases added].
AAMD’s newest guidelines attempt to clarify for its members what is meant by “direct care” of collections under its new policy:
Direct care for purposes of this section means the direct costs associated with the storage or preservation of works of art. Such direct costs include for example those for (i) conservation and restoration treatments (including packing and transportation for such conservation or restoration) and (ii) materials required for storage of all classifications of works of art, such as, acid-free paper, folders, matboard, frames, mounts, and digital media migration. Funds received from the disposal of a deaccessioned work of art shall not be used for operations or capital expenses except as provided above. Direct care does not include (a) salaries of staff [emphasis added] or (b) costs incurred for the sole purpose of temporary exhibition display.
This differs from the April 2020 temporary revision of AAMD’s deaccession standards, which allowed member museums to use sale proceeds for general operating expenses or to pay for expenses associated with the direct care of collections, including salaries , without incurring censure or sanctions. (The Metropolitan Museum acknowledged having paid salaries of collection-care workers with proceeds from of prints and drawings sold at Christie’s in Fall 2021, but its director, Max Hollein, recently told me, in response to my query, that the Met is now “apply[ing] all of our deaccessioning funds to acquisitions.”
The April 2020 revision was founded on the belief that “greater financial flexibility now [in light of the financial challenges caused by the pandemic] will help ensure [museums’] long-term stability and their opportunities to serve their communities down the line.” Now it seems that “long-term stability” depends on the continuation of loosened guidelines that had been initially touted as temporary.
The initial permissive revision was “clarified’ six months later to state that works targeted for deaccession would have to meet the previously enunciated criteria for deeming works expendable, 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 long-standing guidelines, now loosened, had stated the following (in Appendix B, p. 21, of Professional Practices in Art Museums, AAMD’s time-honored rubric for its members):
Funds received from the disposal of a deaccessioned work shall not be used for operations or capital expenses. Such funds, including any earnings and appreciation thereon, may be used only for the acquisition of works [emphasis added] in a manner consistent with the museum’s policy on the use of restricted acquisition funds.
Especially in light of the recent changes, “Professional Practices,” which has been revised every 10 years, is overdue for an overhaul: The most recent version (from which the above quote is excerpted) is dated 2011. According to Sascha Freudenheim, AAMD’s spokesperson (as principal of PAVE Communications & Consulting), only 130 of the 199 members eligible to vote on the recent changes actually did so. Of the 130 who voted, 109 voted in favor of the latest revisions. That said, 109 votes represents only 55% of the total membership of 199. Unexplained is why 69 AAMD museum directors neglected to cast votes.
The revisions were unanimously recommended by an 18-member task force of art museum directors, chaired by Rod Bigelow, director of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which has a reliable source of ample funds, thanks to its founder—Walmart heiress Alice Walton).
Bigelow, whom I met during my 2011 visit to Crystal Bridges, when he was the museum’s deputy director for operations and administration, is knowledgeable about museum finances and administration, but lacked an art history background. Perhaps the most prominent member of AAMD’s deaccession task force—Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art—has made no secret of his support for “deaccession[ing] rigorously, in order to either acquire more important works of art or to build endowments to support programming [emphasis added],” as he stated in an online interview with Charlotte Burns when she worked at Sotheby’s, which stands to profit from deaccessions, which are mostly monetized at auction.
Even former Met director Tom Campbell (now director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), who in February 2021 published an article in Apollo magazine expressing the “fear that the AAMD has created an uncontrollable situation” by temporarily loosening deaccession standards, has backpedaled, aligning himself with the majority of his voting colleagues (as recently reported in the NY Times).
Nevertheless, the warning Campbell had sounded last year in Apollo now seems prophetic:
It seems optimistic to believe that it [AAMD] can relax its rules for two years and then reimpose them. The financial repercussions of the pandemic will last beyond that and it will be hard to make the case to a troubled institution in three or five years that deaccessioning for operating costs is no longer an option. If a significant number of institutions take advantage of this two-year window, then the practice is likely to become a norm. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, as they say….
A second uncertainty is whether the AAMD will succeed in ring-fencing the application of deaccession funds to a narrowly defined concept of “collection care”—towards conservation materials and staff, for example. The definition of collection care is amorphous—repairing the roof is a type of collection care, as is paying the salaries of security guards. Inevitably, some institutions will use the loosening of the rules to push for a variety of goals beyond collection care.
Someone who can still be counted upon as an unwavering champion of tried-and-true values is Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts: As reported in the above-linked NY Times article, Nyerges “voted against the rule change” on deaccessions and “saw the [previous AAMD] policy as it stood as a basic cornerstone of the trust that the association has built with donors. ‘I think it is an abdication of the trust we have spent more than 100 years establishing,'” he said, referring to the weakening of deaccession standards.
If Carmine Branagan (National Academy), Linda Harrison (Newark Museum), Christopher Bedford (Baltimore Museum), Van Shields (Berkshire Museum) and others previously caught in AAMD’s crosshairs are feeling more than a little cynical about the rough treatment they had received at the hands of self-righteous colleagues who had criticized (and even censured) them for their deaccession transgressions, they now have every right to feel aggrieved and vindicated. It seems that the belief that deaccessions to defray certain operating expenses are sometimes necessary for a museum to survive and thrive is taken seriously only if the most prestigious institutions feel the need to capitulate to their own economic exigencies. The little guys were expected to suck it up and focus on reducing their expenses and raising more funds.
Unless AAMD does an about-face, reclaiming the ethical high ground, it may lose all claim to being a steadfast, impartial arbiter of art-museum standards.