Monday, January 04, 2010

Where were we (again)? (UPDATED)

We begin 2010 where we started in 2009 -- with the deaccessioning debate in the pages of the New York Times. Over the holiday weekend, Judith Dobrzynski had an op-ed piece arguing that "de-accessioning shouldn’t be impossible — just nearly so." She begins by pointing out that "already some respected figures — David Gordon, former head of the Milwaukee Art Museum, and Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, for example — are saying that the rule against selling art for any purpose other than buying more art is wrong," and then moves on to neatly summarize the case against the anti-deaccessioning hysterics:

"Many people don’t understand the problem. If the choice is between allowing a museum to fail (or make crippling cutbacks) and selling some art, what’s the big deal? Sell art! Most museums, after all, hold many works they have no room to display and stuff them into back rooms and off-site storage facilities. If museums are allowed to cull their collections to raise money to buy more art, why can’t they sell those very same pieces to solve their financial problems?"

The answer, according to the "strict constructionists," is that "once selling art to cover operating costs is allowed, it will become the first resort in bad times, not the last," and Dobrzynski says "on that score, they may be right. It’s human nature to test the line and, having gotten away with something, to do it again." This is the slippery slope argument we've seen many times before, so I won't rehash the same old arguments against it, but I do want to just emphasize that this view concedes that there is nothing inherently wrong with, say, the National Academy selling off a couple of works to keep its doors open -- it's not Stalinesque, it's not repulsive. It's just an empirical claim -- which Dobrzynski has the honesty to admit "may" (and therefore may not) be true -- that if we allow Museum X to sell work as a last resort that will lead Museums Y and Z to sell work as a first resort. It's the-folks-in-charge-of-our-museums-are-naughty-schoolchildren argument. The only thing standing in the way of a wholesale liquidation of our cultural heritage is the heroic members of the AAMD.

Anyway, all of this is just prelude to Dobrzynski's real point, which is a proposal to "amend the unwritten sales ban, but not end it":

"What if a museum had to argue its case for de-accessioning art before an impartial arbitrator? This neutral party would need to be schooled in art, art law and nonprofit regulations. Moreover, the museum would need to open its financial books completely, so that the arbitrator could see that all other reasonable avenues of fund-raising, as well as cutbacks, had already been exhausted. And it would need to open its cataloguing records and storerooms, to show that the departure of the works in question would not irreparably damage the collection and that no donor agreements would be violated. Most important, as part of any deal permitting the sale of art, the de-accessioning museum would have to offer the works to other museums first. If it received no offers, it could sell the pieces via a public auction — and any American museum would then have the opportunity to match a winning bid if it promised to keep the work in a public collection."

I think this is obviously a step in the right direction -- among other things, it incorporates elements of the Ellis Rule and the Kimmelman Rule, which are good things -- but, having conceded, as Dobrzynski does, that our museums hold more works than they can display and that they "are allowed to cull their collections" for purpose x ("to raise money to buy more art'), I would permit the same culling for purposes y and z, without making them jump through the hoop of appearing before an arbitrator. In other words, I would trust the people who run our museums to responsibly exercise their fiduciary duties and do the right thing. (Though I promise to give some more thought to Michael Rushton's well-stated moral hazard arguments in the near future.)

Dobrzynski has an interesting follow-up at her blog, where she notes that she "expected to be flooded with complaints about violating sacred principles. Instead, all of the feedback I've received has been positive." "Maybe we are maturing," she says.

The Deaccessioning Blog thinks "this is actually the best solution put on the table so far, and to my delight (and self-serving position) something not too far from what I have argued here."

Lee Rosenbaum speaks up on behalf of (as Dobrzynski puts it) the "purists" who turn "purple with apoplexy" at the "mere mention of art sales for operating money": "Actually, we strict constructionists don't believe that such sales should be allowed at all, even as a last resort. The 'slippery slope' argument is just the kicker. In truth, there's no such thing as a single 'last resort.' Smarter management, intensified fundraising, improved marketing, innovative earned-income strategies, and (truly the last resort) temporary cuts of expenses and staff are the right ways to meet financial crises. Selling the art is a seductively easy way to raise cash for operations and debt reduction. But it's the wrong way: Art is the raison d'ĂȘtre of museums and the 'deaccession or die' argument is specious." As I've noted before, Lee, alone among the purple-faced apoplectics, believes that museums should not be selling work for any purpose, including buying more art. [CORRECTION: See "Update" below.] Curious, then, that she closes her response to Dobrzynski's piece with a prayer for the Brodsky Bill, which, in its most recent version, allows sales for "refinement of collections" -- essentially enshrining the (to my mind hypocritical) AAMD position into law.

UPDATE: Lee Rosenbaum emails that it’s inaccurate to say that she "believes that museums should not be selling work for any purpose, including buying more art." Her view is that works that are "inferior in condition, quality, etc." – "in other words, … works that don't belong at the museum in the first place, because they are not useful for exhibition or scholarship" – may be sold, and the sales proceeds used to buy more art. That’s fair enough, and I regret the error, but I would just note that that view strikes me as much tougher than either (1) current museum practice (under which deaccessioning is decidedly not limited to works "that don’t belong in the museum in the first place") and (2) what would be permitted under the Brodsky Bill (with its massive exception for "refinement of collections"). I'm also not sure why, if all we're talking about are works that "don't belong at the museum in the first place," use of the sales proceeds should be limited to the purchase of more art. Are we worried that museums would be tempted to get rid of . . . stuff that doesn't belong there in the first place?