Hard Sell

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Scene on the Magdalene, Frederic Edwin Church, 1854/National Academy Museum

Scene on the Magdalene, Frederic Edwin Church, 1854/National Academy Museum

On his excellent Art Law Blog the New York attorney Donn Zaretzky has been playing devil’s advocate on the topic of deaccessioning — the occasional practice by museums of selling off works in their “permanent” collection. As you probably know, the longtime rule of both the American Association of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) is that such sales are only justified when the proceeds are used to buy more art. You’re not supposed to use the money to fix the roof or just generally pay the bills.

As you also probably know, a few weeks ago the cash-strapped National Academy Museum in New York brought in about $15 million from the private sale to an unnamed foundation of two 19th-century American canvases, Scene on the Magdalene by Frederic Edwin Church and Mount Mansfield, Vermont by Sanford Robinson Gifford. But because the money from that sale will go largely to purposes forbidden by the AAMD guidelines, namely to stabilize the Academy’s threadbare finances, the AAMD set off the atomic bomb. It forbid any of its member institutions from lending pictures to the Academy, effectively making it impossible for the Academy to do the kind of loan shows that are one of the main ways that museums stay on the map.

On his blog Zaretsky has been arguing that the AAMD position is inconsistent. It approves sales if the money goes toward new acquisitions, but forbids them for other purposes, even if that purpose is to ensure that the museum in question survives at all. (Carmine Branagan, the National Academy director, has said that without the money from those recent sales, her museum would have to close.) For that matter, Zaretsky asks, why should it be unacceptable for a museum to sell work from its collection for the purpose of finding money to increase its display space, allowing the pubic to see more of its collection? (That’s another purpose that Branagan says the sale money will be going towards. Most of the Academy’s collection of more than 7000 objects is in semi-permanent storage.)

Zaretsky makes the best developed case I’ve seen for easing up the taboo on deaccessioning, and I might even be more inclined to agree with him were it not for one thing. If the profession didn’t discourage museums from using their collections as a piggy bank, I suspect a lot of them would be doing it more often, and not bothering with the hard work of fund raising. Zaretsky calls this a slippery slope argument, which it is, but one that I find compelling because in recent years we’ve seen a number of institutions already going down that slope. Campus museums have been the most susceptible, probably because school administrators aren’t responsible only for their school’s museum, but for their entire school, so they’re more likely to see the art collection as one small part — and a fungible one at that — of a much larger mission. Over the past year or two, Fisk University in Tennessee and Randolph College in Virginia famously decided to sell off some of their collections to pay general operating expenses for the schools. Randolph got away with it. Fisk has been thwarted — so far — by the Tennessee attorney general’s office and a Los Angeles DUI attorney group. But when its attempt to sell paintings was blocked, sure enough Fisk managed to raise the necessary funds by other means.

In a world where there were no penalties attached to crisis deaccessioning, would Fisk have even bothered to try other avenues? In this respect, emergency deaccessioning starts to look a bit like government bailouts, a “safety net” that could encourage disregard for sound institutional management practices. It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time the National Academy has resorted to selling off work to pay the bills. Meanwhile, they have yet to come up with a plausible fund raising model.

Without some kind of penalties in place, I think we’d see a lot more examples like the one earlier this year at the University of Iowa. After the Mississippi River flooded in August, Michael Gartner, a member of the University board of regents, asked the university to determine the market value of Jackson Pollock’s Mural, which is in the collection of the school’s art museum. His intention was obvious — selling the painting could raise money to pay for the campus clean up. The idea got shouted down, but what really struck me about that episode is that in the midst of the whole controversy it emerged that the university’s flood insurance was already sufficient to cover most repairs. Selling the Pollock would not even have been necessary. Just easy — or so Gartner hoped.

Zaretsky suggests that perhaps what we need isn’t a blanket condemnation of deaccessions but safeguards that allow such sales in situations of dire financial emergency. And surely there are times when some institutions are truly at death’s door, which is why I once suggested that the Barnes Foundation, the artworld’s most famous basket case, should have been permitted to sell works from its collection to prevent the institutional demolition it’s now about to suffer.

The question, of course, is what would those safeguards look like? Could the AAMD establish a standard for judging the seriousness of a museum’s plight, and give a free pass to the ones in the most desperate predicaments? Here’s a fearless New Year’s prediction. As the Great Recession deepens over the next year or so, and more museums start coming apart at the seams, we’ll probably get a chance to give that more thought.