Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Hey, donor intent trumps all, right?

I love this New York Times story by Patricia Cohen involving the Brooklyn Museum.

Seems a large group of works were given to the museum in 1932 by the estate of Col. Michael Friedsam.  It turns out, though, that about a quarter of the 926 works  are "fakes, misattributions or of poor quality."  The museum would like to deaccession those items and avoid the costs of storing them.

So what's the problem?

Well, according to Cohen, "the will specified that the art should go to the colonel’s brother-in-law and two friends if the collection was not kept together."  So if the museum gets rid of the 229 unwanted items, it runs the risk of losing the whole collection.

The Donor Intent Police should of course be thrilled with that outcome.  If the will says the collection is forfeited if it's broken up, then that's the way it has to be.  After all, if people can't be certain that the fakes in their collection will remain in storage at major museums, why will they ever make another donation?

It's of course a ridiculous situation, but the Donor Intent Police have no standing to all of a sudden start interpreting the conditions of people's gifts in the light of changed circumstances.  That's the point of their strident opposition to the Fisk transaction:  who cares if Fisk has to shut its doors:?  The donor said no sales and that means no sales, no matter the consequences.  Same with the Barnes.  Who cares if the institution was running out of money?  Who cares about increased public access to the collection?  All that matters is the intent of the donor (interpreted in the most literal way of course ... the Donor Intent Police are all strict constructionists).

So now that this shameless attempt to violate a poor donor's intent has been made public, I expect we'll get the usual howls of outrage from the Donor Intent Police.

Won't we?