Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Deaccession Discussion

Lee Rosenbaum (who has new digs) and Tyler Green gang up on Met curator Gary Tinterow for what they regard as a too casual attitude towards museum deaccessioning. A while back economist Tyler Cowen asked why deaccessioning draws such intense criticism, and suggested a "a very crude theory, too crude to possibly be true":

"Stop thinking of visitors as the museum's customers. Instead the customers are the donors. Donating a picture is like spending money. The donor gives a Picasso to MOMA, in return purchasing the feeling of 'having given a Picasso to MOMA.' This yields tax, networking, and other privileges in this life, as well as a long-term legacy. Museums, in turn, take some care to attract viewers, so that their real customers -- the donors -- have greater feelings of satisfaction about the whole enterprise. In this 'model,' selling off artworks makes customers (donors) nervous. 'How do I know they won't sell off my [sic] Picasso once I've died?' ... So museums sit on their huge and growing stashes of art. In this manner they signal their trustworthiness to future donors. ...The museum community, of course, does not like to admit that its donors are the primary customers (how would viewers and government funders feel?), so it must present other reasons why deaccessioning is bad."

My friend Adrian Ellis of AEA Consulting has made the following interesting argument against the absolutists:

"One approach that respects the intentions underpinning the current position on de-accessioning whilst allowing for a more balanced allocation of resources might be for the museum community to see itself more as just that – a community – and allow for a more comfortable distribution of resources between cash poor asset rich institutions and asset poor cash rich ones, allowing them to trade to mutual advantage .... Sales could be restricted to museums that conform to appropriate standards of conservation and scholarly or public access and any sale could be caveated to prevent on-sale to third parties that did not meet similar conditions."

Certainly in the case of what David Nishimura has called "survival deaccessioning" -- as, perhaps, in the Fisk University case I recently discussed (put aside for the moment the more difficult questions of donor intent that case raises) -- it's difficult to argue against a sale, particularly if, following Ellis's suggestion, it's restricted to another qualifying museum.