Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Trust Me

With Detroit's "grand bargain" sweeping ahead, and the art seemingly safe, I finally got around to reading the DIA's motion papers arguing against any sale.  I wasn't as impressed with them as Nicholas O'Donnell was (though I thank him for the kind words about me).  It struck me as the kind of brief where a lot of dust is kicked up in the air, but when you try to grasp onto an actual argument, it isn't quite there.  In general, I find the whole notion of works being "held in trust" to be unhelpful to the debate.  You think it's a bad idea to sell the work, that the harmful consequences of doing so would outweigh the good -- then say so, make your case.  Introducing some imagined or implied "trust" feels to me like stealing a base, a way to cut off debate.  But that's a longer argument for another day.  For now, I just want to mention a couple of things from the museum's brief.

First, it argues that "it would be dishonest, immoral, and indecent for the City to attempt to claim the right to sell any property for its own benefit that the City represented the Museum would hold for the Public benefit."  But a couple pages later, they acknowledge that the "City retains legal title" to the work.  So who is this "Public" (with a capital P for some reason) for whose benefit the City is holding the work?  In this case (where the City owns the work), wouldn't it make more sense to say "the City holds the work in trust for the benefit of ... the City"?

Or is it always some other, imaginary capital P public that the work is being held for?

Second, if the works are truly held in trust -- not in a vague, poetic AAMD way, but in an actual legal trust that you are telling a federal bankruptcy judge prevents their sale -- then who gave the museum the right to sell works Whenever It Goddamn Feels Like It so long as the proceeds are used to buy more work?  So not only do they invent an imaginary trust, they then invent imaginary terms for the imaginary trust.  Of course one of the imaginary terms of the imaginary trust is that the imaginary trustees are empowered to sell off assets of the trust any time they want as long as they happen to follow the "ethical" guidelines of the major museum associations.

Imagine that.  What a lucky coincidence.