Thursday, February 05, 2009

One Eighty

Felix Salmon offers some answers to the questions I raised in the update to this post yesterday. Libby Ellis emailed some thoughts in response:

"I don't understand Felix's 180 on Iowa. How could he support selling Pollock's Mural precisely because it's one of the greatest American paintings of the 20th century and ought to be in a more prominent museum collection that can presumably promote and protect it better (his argument in August), and then suddenly say that the same piece should never be sold - not even to another museum - because it's 'core' to the collection? That is quite an about-face.

"As for the Rose situation, the parent-child analogy can only be taken so far. Obviously parents don't have the right to sell or maim their children, but, like it or not, parent institutions generally have broad powers over the subsidiary, including the power to sell assets or fold completely. In the case of Iowa, the museum is subsidiary to the university, which, as a public institution, is in turn beholden to the state of Iowa. It's 'too easy,' because the law with regard to ownership rights in these cases is pretty clear cut. Salmon is correct that the case of the Barnes is entirely different. . . .

"As for donors, yes, this episode will in all likelihood make them think twice and read the fine print more carefully before donating their works to a museum with a parent. But donors need to understand - and I am sure most of them do - that there is risk in giving anything to any charity anywhere. There is no iron-clad guarantee that a gift will be stewarded according to the donor's wishes in perpetuity - and yes the Barnes is a great example here. If Brandeis is flagrantly violating the terms of donors' gifts, then the AG will have to sort it out, but I cannot imagine that art donors to the Rose were not made aware of the fact that the university ultimately owns the works and reserves the right to close the museum. ... Philanthropy is always a bit of a gamble, and you do your best to make smart decisions and to support institutions with the most integrity who are best positioned to carry out your wishes for as long as possible. And obviously charities need to take those wishes extremely seriously (which is why I find moving the Barnes, instead of selling one picture to properly endow it, to be a travesty). If you can afford to give away multi-million-dollar paintings, you can and should afford some amount of Buddhist detachment from it all, all the while donating your time and expertise, too, to the charity to help them be good stewards.

"I am not defending Brandeis; it was a bone-headed move and it will bring a host of negative consequences, not to mention bad karma, to the university that it probably didn't anticipate. I think the real tragedy of the Rose - aside from the fact that art history students will in the future be denied a fantastic learning resource - is the chutzpah of it all, the rupture of an implicit, if not explicit, contract between the museum and the university: in exchange for autonomy, the museum is supposed to gain other benefits: facilities, annual funding, indirect marketing/fundraising/administrative support, a built-in visitor base, etc. Living under the wing of an established, historically financially secure, large parent institution is supposed to bring stability and benefits to the museum that compensate for the lack of autonomy. Every museum like the Rose knows that the university has the 'nuclear option' at its disposal, but it's a tacit understanding that it will never be triggered, presumably because the parent recognizes the benefits that the museum brings to its brand and offer. (And, by the way, this is not only the case with university museums; many people may not realize that The Jewish Museum in New York, for example, is a subsidiary of The Jewish Theological Seminary, who also possesses the nuclear option but works to maintain peaceful d├ętente with the museum.) At the end of the day, however, the parent does reserve the option, and, yes, with these governance arrangements the parent's first responsibility is to itself. That being said, one would hope and expect that the parent would not exercise this right, the same way anyone possessing even a rudimentary moral code doesn't kick their indigent grandmother out of their house onto the street: even though you have the legal right to, it's just not done.

"As for the foundation/lending model, I am not sure what that has to do with the Rose situation. I also like the idea in principle, because it's a light, flexible model that, as Salmon says, works to maximize visibility of works and doesn't carry with it the high fixed costs and sclerosis that so many museums develop over time. But as we know many art lending foundations decide eventually to create their own museums (it's irresistible!): The Nasher Sculpture Center, Noguchi Museum, Fisher Landau Center for Art, and, soon, the Broad Museum, among many others. This results, again, in the same parent-subsidiary structure, whereby the foundation retains ownership and can decide to deaccession whatever it wants and close the museum if it chooses. I am not sure how a donor to an art foundation can be guaranteed that the work will never be sold, or that it will be shown more than if it gave it to a stand-alone museum. Surely the amount of visibility depends in large part on the quality of the work, its relationship to the rest of the collection, and demand for the work from other museums. In any case, even if Brandeis is trying to use the 'low visibility' argument as part of its rationale for closure, everyone knows it's bogus - if they cared about visibility, they obviously wouldn't be talking about selling.

"The Nasher Foundation, btw, as Carol Vogel reminded us recently, sold 200 works last May to raise money for its endowment which supports the Center (which it owns). This sale barely raised eyebrows - and certainly didn't trigger the prissy fatwa - because it was done by a foundation and not a museum. So the foundation model, frankly, can be another way to get around the fatwa."

[Note: The Carol Vogel article Libby refers to is here, and includes the following: "In addition the Nasher Foundation, which owns the [Nasher Sculpture Center] ..., sold about 200 paintings and sculptures in auctions at Sotheby’s in May, raising $47.4 million more for the endowment."]