Saturday, October 17, 2020

Full Circle

Thinking more about Mark Stryker's excellent tweet yesterday --  where he basically says in one sentence what I've been trying to say here for about 12 years -- and Everson board president Jessica Arb Danial's excellent piece, I'm reminded of the initial question I had about this whole issue, as quoted in Jori Finkel's New York Times piece all those years ago:

"Donn Zaretsky, a New York lawyer who specializes in art cases, has sympathized with the National Academy at [The Art Law Blog], asking why a museum can sell art to buy more art but not to cover overhead costs or a much-needed education center. 'Why should we automatically assume that buying art always justifies a deaccessioning, but that no other use of proceeds — no matter how important to an institution’s mission — ever can?' he wrote."

I still think that's the right question.

We know, as Stryker reminds us, that museums sell work whenever they want, so it cannot be the case that they are held in public trust. The only issue is use of proceeds.

The Jessica Arb Danials of the world think there is another use of proceeds, besides buying art, that can justify a deaccessioning -- namely, social justice, equity, diversity, representation.

Her opponents disagree with that view.

Isn't that what it really comes down to?

"He would also withdraw the portion of his complaint that his rights were violated under the Visual Artists Rights Act."

 An update on the toilet gardens lawsuit.

Friday, October 16, 2020

A Second Round of Deaccessioning at the Brooklyn Museum

This round includes works by Monet, MirĂ³, and Degas. Previous round here.

These sales are completely ethical -- the AAMD, which as we all know has the power to say whether or not something is ethical, has decreed it so. Some people are unhappy anyway.

Former Detroit Free Press arts reporter Mark Stryker tweets: "in future, critics will point to hypocrisy of museums selling whenever they want but crying 'public trust' only when convenient. The critics will be right."

Or, put another way: Tell me again about the public trust.

"While fine arts experts and critics may try to shame the Everson and other like-minded museums for the decision to deaccession for the purpose of creating an endowment to diversify the collection, these voices are echoing decades of status quo art history textbook and gallery etiquette, rather than the realities we are living today."

 "To seek to impose one’s ideals of an art museum, without considering how significantly the world has changed these last few decades, let alone these past few months, is nothing short of tone-deaf. Every one of us, especially in the arts, should be acting. The Everson is resolute in its decision to represent our community and will not miss out on an opportunity to create meaningful change.

In the "other" big deaccessioning story, the President of the Everson board defends the decision to sell a Pollock and use the proceeds to diversify its collection, including also the following:

"We see our role in this community as being much greater than retaining a single work of art, a status quo or the rigid sensibilities of a few critics, commentators and professional associations. We have something bigger in our hearts and minds, and it includes contributing most meaningfully to a community that is divided and hurting, preserving the talent of diverse artists still fighting barriers for entry and igniting the aspirations of young people who need to see themselves represented by artists."

Background, including comments from one of those critics, here.

Latest on the Baltimore Museum Deaccessioning

The LA Times: "A group of 23 prominent supporters of the Baltimore Museum of Art, including former trustees at the BMA and the nearby Walters Art Museum, has written to Maryland Atty. Gen. Brian Frosh and Secretary of State John C. Wobensmith to demand that they intervene to stop the impending sale of paintings from the storied museum’s collection."

Christopher Knight calls it "a blistering and closely argued six-page letter." Tyler Green has thoughts here. Lee Rosenbaum is here.

The museum's response -- including that "deaccessioning artworks from a museum's collection is a standard practice" -- can be read here.

The Baltimore Sun's editorial board weighs in here: "it’s an understandably painful pill for some to swallow. And change in general is uncomfortable. But we prefer to think of it not as closing a door on certain works by these white artists of the past, but instead opening the door to including diverse artists of the future, who would not have had the opportunity to be seen and appreciated in the same way in any other time in history, along with the new audience they could attract."

Two museum curators defended the move here. Background here.

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

"Baltimore Museum to Sell 3 Blue-Chip Paintings to Advance Equity"

Still catching up on blogging, and last week's big story was the Baltimore Museum of Art putting three major paintings up for sale and planning to "use its $65 million windfall to help advance salary increases across the board, invest in diversity and inclusion programs, offer evening hours and eliminate admission fees for special exhibitions." The New York Times story is here. Eileen Kinsella has more here.

Christopher Bedford, the Museum's director, says "this is done specifically in recognition of the protest being led by museum staff to be paid an equitable living wage to perform core work for an institution with a social justice mission — that symmetry between who we say we are and what we actually are behind our doors."

As the Times points out, the Museum is "taking advantage of the Association of Art Museum Directors’ temporary pandemic-era loosening of its deaccessing guidelines. ... The B.M.A.’s game plan is ... in line with how the museum association defined its new resolution active until April 2022, said Christine Anagnos, its director. The first $10 million of proceeds from the ... sale will go into the museum’s endowment fund for acquisitions, with an emphasis on artists of color of the postwar era. The rest of the proceeds, approximately $55 million, will be used to create a new endowment for direct care of the collection. This fund should generate approximately $2.5 million annually in income, to cover the salaries of curators, registrars, conservators, preparators, art handlers, administrative staff and fellows, and other collection-related expenses."

I discussed that temporary pandemic-era loosening of the AAMD's deaccessioning guidelines here.

Monday, October 05, 2020

Cert. Denied in the 5Pointz Case (UPDATED)

Story here. Background here. Brian Frye tweets: "I think VARA is terrible policy & I think the underlying decision was wrong on both the merits & the remedy. But the defendant was defiantly unsympathetic, so..."

UPDATE: New York Times story here.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

"Today came news that the cutting-edge warehouse, opened by the real estate firm Carye Equities for a reported $40 million and managed by shipping industry experts, is shutting down for good."

 ARCIS -- once described as "a tax-free zone in search of a tax" -- has closed down. Eileen Kinsella has the story here.

And speaking of Deaccessioning Hall of Fame Scholar-in-Residence Brian Frye ...

 ... an interesting conversation between him and another friend of the blog, artist/lawyer Alfred Steiner, at Brian's excellent Ipse Dixit podcast. Here's a good recent example of a Steiner project -- a Public License for Criminal Use.

The other big deaccessioning story ... (UPDATED)

 ... is that the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse is deaccessioning a Jackson Pollock -- estimated at $12-18 million -- and will use the proceeds to diversify its collection. The Baltimore Museum did something similar a couple years ago.

I would have guessed that, because the sales proceeds are being used to buy more art (among other reasons), this would be non-controversial, but surprisingly (to me at least) it's been met with a good deal of criticism. Both Christopher Knight and Lee Rosenbaum have come out strongly against it.

In response to Knight's piece, Deaccessioning Hall of Fame Scholar-in-Residence Brian Frye tweets: "Christopher Knight, the Inspector Clouseau of the Deaccessioning Police, now has a bee in his bonnet about the Everson Museum selling a Pollock in order to diversify its collection. Amusingly, he can't even invoke the (meaningless) AAMD deaccessioning rules, which expressly allow museums to sell works in order to buy different works. All he can do is whine that the museum is selling a work he happens to like in order to buy something else. Tell me more about how 'diversity is important, but...'?"

Everson Director Elizabeth Dunbar says:

"The murder of George Floyd and a string of senseless killings of Black lives have propelled us into urgent discussions surrounding the Museum’s role and responsibility in fighting racism inside and outside our walls. Now is the time for action. By deaccessioning a single artwork, we can make enormous strides in building a collection that reflects the amazing diversity of our community and ensure that it remains accessible to all for generations to come."

In response, Knight says this approach -- selling work "to the highest bidder [as a] way to bring racial and gender equity to the institution going forward" -- is "balderdash. The Everson would need to unload half of its collection for it to reflect the diversity of a city that is 45% nonwhite, according to the most recent census estimate." He also says the trend of museums "sell[ing] art by blue-chip white artists to create a diversity acquisition fund" is a "terrible" one: "The goal of diversifying white patriarchal patterns of museum art collecting is hugely important. This sort of quick fix belies the seriousness."

UPDATE: A local response to Knight here.

"It is the kind of sale that once would have engendered criticism, perhaps even sanctions .... But it is now completely within the parameters of loosened regulations ...."

I've been behind on my blogging the last few weeks, but the big news of course was the announcement by the Brooklyn Museum that it would be selling 12 works -- including paintings by Cranach, Courbet and Corot -- to raise funds for the care of its collection.

As the Times article points out, the Museum is the first major institution "to take advantage of" the (temporary) change in the AAMD's deaccessioning guidelines, announced in April.

One point I haven't made before about that change is how it completely undermines the public trust argument against deaccessioning. If you really believe that a museum holds its collection in the public trust -- as if the museum is the trustee and the public is the beneficiary -- then how does a change in policy by some third-party organization release the works from the public trust? Where does the AAMD get that power? Who made it the arbiter of what is or is not held in public trust?

The other thing that undermines the public trust argument against deaccessioning, as I've said a million times here before, is that museums sell works all the time, so obviously they can't be held in the public trust. If the Museum in this case had announced it was selling the same 12 works and putting the sales proceeds in a bank account labeled "acquisition fund," no one would have batted an eye. But using the same proceeds to care for its collection brings out the usual ritual denunciations.