Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Roberta Smith weighs in on Detroit (UPDATED)

She calls a possible sale "deeply alarming" and "cluelessly self-destructive."  The arguments will be familiar to anyone who's been following the discussion, but apparently some people really wanted to hear them made by someone at the Times.

A few reactions:

1.  She says selling "some of the art" would be "a betrayal of public trust and donors’ bequests."  As we saw yesterday, the donor bequests issue is complicated here.

2.  She also says it would be "a violation of the museum’s nonprofit status."  I don't know where she gets that; I don't think it's a violation of "nonprofit status" to sell some assets.

3.   She says the possible sale raises the question "who owns the art housed in public nonprofit institutions" and that "those who answer that it is held 'in public trust' are not just mouthing idealistic catchwords."  She doesn't say what else they are doing, but I have my usual question:  who owns the Hopper painting that the Pennsylvania Academy has decided to sell?  Is that work not held "in public trust" and if not, why not?

4.  She quotes Graham Beal's statement that "selling any art would be tantamount to closing the museum" and then says:  "This was not hyperbole. As nonprofits, museums can sell art only to buy other, supposedly better art. If Detroit’s art were sold to repay the city’s debts, it would violate the city’s own 1919 agreement with the institute. It would also automatically rescind the year-old tax vote by the three counties."  I'm not sure any of those leads to the conclusion that selling "any art" (don't they have a Hopper lying around somewhere?) is tantamount to closing the museum, but let's take a closer look one by one.

In the first sentence, the conclusion -- "museums can sell art only to buy other, supposedly better art" -- doesn't follow from the lead-in ("as nonprofits").  It is not a feature of all "nonprofits" that they can sell art only to buy other art.  I guess you could say "As a member of the AAMD, the museum can only ..." but then you'd be appealing to the ethics rules of a private organization; you're not saying something about the essential nature of "nonprofits."  And in any event, it isn't clear how the violation of that rule -- in this extreme circumstance -- would be tantamount to closing the museum.  The museum would still be there, with one, or two (or however many) fewer works.

I'm not familiar with the terms of the 1919 agreement between the city and "the institute," but, again, I don't see why a breach of that agreement (for example by selling one Van Gogh) would be tantamount to closing the museum.  It may be wrong, it may be a breach of contract, it may be repulsive.  But why is it tantamount to closing the museum?

And last, this may be splitting hairs a little, but to say a sale would "automatically" rescind the recent millage sounds, to me, like, by its terms, it does not apply in the event of a sale.  But in fact, what I believe has happened is that the surrounding counties have threatened to cut it off if any sales happen (though correct me if I'm wrong about that).  That's like me announcing that, if PAFA sells the Hopper, I will blow up the museum, and then saying "we can't sell the Hopper; it would be tantamount to destroying the museum."  The millage is not being "automatically" cut off as a result of the potential sales; instead a decision has been made by certain political actors to cut off funding if they don't like the outcome of the bankruptcy process.  And, in any event, even the loss of the millage wouldn't necessarily be tantamount to closing the museum.  During the campaign for its passage, the museum said, if the millage didn't happen, "there would be a severe reduction of museum services and programs," including, perhaps, "opening selected galleries only on weekends, elimination of school tours, public programs and community outreach."  They did not suggest it would be tantamount to closing.

UPDATE:  Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento has some thoughts.