My friend Libby Ellis of AEA Consulting has been following the deaccessioning debate that’s emerged in the wake of the National Academy’s decision to sell a couple of paintings. She sent me the following email this morning:
"It seems such a phony metaphor, this notion that everything owned by every art museum actually ‘belongs’ to the public. If that were the case, then, it seems to me, each citizen would need to be paying a lot more than the indirect contribution of exemptions and deduction. Stuff is owned by museums for the benefit of the public, but stuff isn’t owned directly by the public. (And maybe we should be thankful it’s not owned outright by the public, who may have sold out long ago to pay for sports stadiums or to balance city budgets or whatever.)
"It is fascinating to see this debate that we’ve been talking about for years percolate now. We will see much more of it, as more museums are forced to publicize their quiet crises.
"I am glad you point out the thing that has always bugged me: that for the AAMD selling in and of itself isn’t the problem; it’s what you do with the proceeds. Most commentators seem to think that selling is the problem, hence it’s ok for the Brooklyn Museum to ‘transfer’ its costume collection to the Met. (I wonder what people would think, however, if the collection had been transferred to Abu Dhabi, where the ‘community’ of Brooklyn would have a slim chance of ever seeing it again?) The debate shouldn’t be about the use of proceeds, or even about selling versus transferring, but mainly about keeping museum collections accessible for public benefit.
"The AAMD position is increasingly untenable considering the strain on budgets and storage space. There needs to be a reality check. My sense is that most people have no idea how bad things are out there today. The idea of ‘perpetuity’ itself may be under threat at this point. Things are really, really bad, and sticking to that AAMD policy and banking on perpetuity today sorta feels like the UAW sticking to the jobs bank."