Tuesday, November 08, 2011

"If you’re never, ever going to show them, I see no reason why we should keep these in the collection."

I love, love, love this kind of piece, by Steven Litt in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.  The subject is the Cleveland Museum of Art's upcoming sale of 24 sculptures at Christie's (which, by the way, follows another round of deaccesioning earlier this year, in which the museum sold 32 paintings).

Normally we're told, when a museum goes to sell work and use the proceeds for anything other than buying more work, that it's the Worst Thing Ever In The History of the World because the work is held by the museum in the public trust, and it would be a horrible violation of the intent of the donors who gave the work to the museum, and it will discourage potential future donors from ever giving anything else to the museum.  Why would anyone give something to a museum if the museum then can turn around and sell it whenever it feels like it, right?

But now, when a museum decides to strip two dozen works from the public trust (presumably to raise funds to buy more work, though the article is not explicit about that), we hear an entirely different story.

First of all, the "sale of works from the permanent collection, known as 'deaccessioning,' is intended to free up storage space and to take a burden off the institution."

You see?  We're relieving the museum of a burden.  Who said anything about a public trust?  These works are a burden to the poor museum.  "Art handlers have to move these things [these 'things' -- love it!], conservators have to conserve them, curators have to do research on the objects, and everybody in Collections Management [a museum department] has to maintain records," a curator at the museum tells Litt.  "If you’re never, ever going to show them, I see no reason why we should keep these in the collection," he adds.  Right!

We also learn that the issue of donor intent is not as simple as we are sometimes led to believe:  "Many of the works to be sold at Christie’s entered the museum’s permanent collection as part of estates donated by supporters .... 'When you get entire estates, sometimes you’d take a very large group of objects and sort it out later,' [the curator] said."  Ah, so, perhaps, works are sometimes given to museums as parts of larger estates, or for tax reasons (did you know that collectors get a tax deduction when they give work to the museum?  It's a little known secret), and maybe the donors wouldn't be so upset if the museum decides someday, years later, to sell those works, particularly if the proceeds are used to support the larger mission of the museum, or perhaps even keep it from having to close.

Good to know!  Why hasn't anyone mentioned this before?

Finally, whenever a work is sold for non-acquisition purposes, opponents of the sale ask:  Where will it end?  If we allow this one sale, what's to stop the museum from selling off everything (or at least two dozen sculptures and 34 paintings in the span of less than a year)?  Well, don't worry.  The folks in Cleveland have thought of a foolproof system of checks and balances.  Are you ready for it?  Here it is:

"The museum consulted numerous outside experts before deciding in each individual case whether a particular sculpture should be sold."

Not just one outside expert, mind you.  Numerous outside experts.  And, they considered each particular case individually.  They didn't just ask "should we sell off a bunch of non-specific sculpture?"  No, they looked at each individual sculpture before deciding to sell 24 of them.  The public trust demands no less.  Thank you, Cleveland, for your diligence.

Is it a surprise that some people might look at all of this and conclude it's all just smoke and mirrors?