Friday, November 09, 2012

Just Doing Their Job

I’ve mentioned a couple of times a new collection of essays on museums that’s just been published by MuseumsEtc.  The book is called A Handbook for Academic Museums:  Beyond Exhibitions and Education and is part of a two-volume series (the other being A Handbook for Academic Museums:  Exhibitions and Education).  My essay (on Fisk-O’Keeffe) is in a chapter entitled Monetization of the Collection to Support the Parent Organization.  I recently did a Q+A with Peter Dean, who also has an essay in that chapter.  That was so much fun I thought I’d do it again, this time with Mark Gold, who, along with Stefanie Jandl, edited the book and also contributed an essay of his own on the legal obligations of trustees of what he calls “parent organizations” – primarily colleges and universities that contain art museums:

Q.  It won't come as any surprise to regular readers of the blog that I thought your piece was terrific. If you were a museum director, I would put you in my Hall of Fame. One thing I particularly liked is how you emphasize that, to the art world, the needs of the parent organization are completely irrelevant. They don't matter at all. I've long thought that, rather than being impartial "arbiters" of the ethics of the situation, groups like the AAMD are just lobbyists for a particular point of view (namely that art is more important than any competing need the parent organization can point to). Do you think that's a fair assessment? Is the AAMD really just lobbying for their desired outcome?

A.  I do think that’s a fair assessment, but it goes far beyond lobbying.  As you know, the response of AAMD, AAM and others includes condemnation and punishment.  I can appreciate, actually, the passion with which they take that position, although I don’t agree with it.  But their apparent lack of appreciation for the fiduciary duties of trustees to do what is best for the parent organization and its broader mission, and the often vitriolic response, can cause them to look more like petulant children than collegial partners in addressing the difficult situation in which the parent organization finds itself.  And, frankly, I think that harms their cause.

At the end of the day, trustees will do what is best for the organization and its mission.  Indeed, the “settlement” reached in the Rose litigation does not limit in any way the ability of future trustees to monetize all or part of the unrestricted collection.  The inflexibility of the position that the collection trumps all (including the survival of the museum), or that the museum trumps the competing needs of the parent organization, renders the professional associations and their rules essentially irrelevant when crunch time comes for a parent organization – or even a free-standing museum.  A prudent trustee is not going to let the rules of a professional association (in some cases, such as Randolph, of which the museum is not even a member!) get in the way of doing what is best for the parent organization. 

Q.  I think that’s right.  As I’ve noted from time to time, their position is a classic of circularity.  Step 1:  If you sell that work, we will sanction you.  Step 2:  It would not be a good thing for you to be sanctioned.  Step 3:  Therefore, you should not sell that work.  You almost have to admire the chutzpah!  But what do you think a more useful role for these organizations would look like?  How could they stay more relevant?

A.  I had a conversation with a museum director when I first started looking at this issue, and we were talking about the ethical rule on the use of proceeds of deaccessioning.  When I asked whether there should be an exception where the survival of the museum was at stake, she replied, “Those museums deserve to die.”   It was a stunning moment for me.  And even more stunning when I later found that she was no outlier.

Yet this view persists, along with the na├»ve belief that objects in closed museums will find happy and welcoming homes in other museums.  The experience of the Fresno Metropolitan Museum, in which the entire collection was sold for the benefit of creditors, should be a wake-up call to those who take comfort in that myth. 

I think the professional associations become more relevant when they acknowledge that there are legitimate exceptions to the rule – some whose rationale cannot be denied without a complete loss of credibility.  Illustratively, how can it be unethical for a museum to finance the purchase of an important painting for the collection (thereby keeping it in the public domain), by pledging the work as collateral while donors have time to raise the cash?  How can it be unethical to sell the multiple duplicates of a particular object in the basement to other museums to raise cash to keep the doors open?  The point is that, like most rules, there are factual situations that cry out to be exceptions.  To deny them, undermines the rule itself, as well as the professional associations that seek to enforce it regardless of the circumstances. 

But we’ve strayed a bit from the role of trustees in making decisions for the parent organization. 

Q.  So let’s come back to that.  What is the role of a trustee in these situations, where, as you point out in your piece, her legal obligation is “to focus on the specific mission of the [parent] organization” … but, at the same time, there are these professional organizations (again quoting from your essay) “weigh[ing] in on these decisions with outrage and condemnation,” “relentlessly assert[ing]” that the interests of the museum trump those of its parent?

A.  A prudent trustee will – or at least should – consider and give weight to the positions taken by the professional associations.  These are serious people with considerable knowledge of their field, deserving of respect. 

But the law is very clear.  The trustees are bound by a duty of obedience, which you describe above, as well as a duty of due care - to act in the best interest of the corporation.  In the case of academic museums, for example, the duty of trustees is to hold paramount the college or university and its educational mission.   When times are tough and programs need to be cut or assets monetized, they will naturally look to all programs and all assets.  It is not reasonable to think that they will or should hold the museum and its collections exempt from this process. 

In my opinion, an astute museum professional will spend time and energy building relationships and posturing his or her museum solidly within the broader mission of the parent, rather than insisting that it be afforded special treatment or privileged status.  No one does that better than Lyndel King at the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota.  She also has an essay in our book that outlines her strategies in a very helpful way.  Educating parent organization trustees about what the museum and its collections contribute to the broader mission in a way that makes it unthinkable that the museum and its collections ever be compromised – and building relationships across campus - is far more effective than relying upon the dictates of professional associations that are not binding on the parent organization or its trustees.