Another Deaccession Session

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Still more on the debate over whether it can ever be acceptable for a museum to sell work from its permanent collection to pay its bills.

Over at his Art Law Blog, the New York attorney Donn Zaretsky has what you might call a throw-all-the-pieces-in-the-air contribution from Adrian Ellis, who heads the arts consulting firm AEA Consulting, which on its website lists many museums among its clients.

These are Ellis’ crucial paragraphs:

Suppose that the rule were radically altered to: you can deaccession and spend the money on whatever you want – a new roof, working capital, education programs, or even a boffo night out with your chums on the board – provided that you ensure that the institution or individual to whom you sell commits in some binding form to equal or higher conservational standards and equal or higher public access.

If some feckless institutions fritter away their assets, so be it – those assets will be better looked after and more often seen that they would in the fritterer hangs onto them, probably out of public sight and below acceptable conservational standards. And those institutions that are in straightened circumstances not of their own making could make a judicious decision about deaccessioning without the current radioactive hyper-politicized stigma surrounding them.

It may be that such a circumscribed market would in effect be so illiquid as to be of little help. But I suspect this is not the case – that there are still enough cash rich institutions (or boards) around to make it reasonably liquid. Maybe the AAMD could be the market maker or at least the regulator.

It’s an intriguing thought. If nothing else it has the advantage of making continuing and even improved public access the required benefit of any sale. But I continue to believe that a regime that never penalizes emergency deaccessioning would tempt too many museums to treat their collections as part of their revenue stream. In earlier posts Zaretsky has asked why should we expect museums to abuse the prerogative of emergency deaccessioning when we assume that the same museums will act judiciously when deciding to sell art for the sanctioned purpose of raising funds to buy new art, which under the current system is the sole approved reason for selling art from the collection. To which I can only say that the recent examples of the Barnes Foundation, the National Academy Museum and the L. A. Museum of Contemporary Art show that the danger of lax institutional management is more real than the danger of museums selling important work to buy new work, which is something you see a lot less of. (And yes, I’m aware that last year the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo did just that, but I think that sale was somewhat sui generis in that the Albright-Knox offered the reason — think of it what you will — that it was simply refining its mission as a museum devoted to contemporary art.)

On a more detailed question — wouldn’t a standard of “equal or higher public access” to a work of art mean that institutions in large cities could only sell to institutions in cities of roughly the same size? Even if Alice Walton provides a splendid setting for Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits, which she bought four years ago from the New York Public Library for her forthcoming Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark., she has still taken it to a relatively remote location where fewer people are likely to see it. If public access is the standard, then could work never flow from larger to smaller cities?

Having said all that I still think that sometimes a museum must sell something to avoid collapse. And I’m not sure of just how organizations like the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) can arrive at a system to make allowances for those instances without enabling bad management practices that produce chronic basket cases like the National Academy Museum. But I have one thought — time limited penalties. Instead of banning its member museums permanently from working with the National Accademy or lending it works of art, as the AAMD has now done, why not establish a well-advertised penalty of, say, a five-year ban for museums that poach from their own collections? That might be a sufficient discouragement to make all museums understand that if they let their finances get badly out of order they will get spanked, but it would also leave open the prospect that if an offender gets itself on a firm footing again it can still get back into the game.

Over at Modern Art Notes the blogger Tyler Green has taken the position that failed institutions should just be allowed to fail, and let their collections pass to other non-profit institutions that will display them. I think that loses sight of an important point, but I’ll get to it in a later post.