Thursday, August 21, 2008

Rule Utilitarianism in Iowa City

Responding to this Felix Salmon post, Richard Lacayo makes a more sophisticated case for the no-no-never position on deaccessioning:

"[T]he problem with selling the Pollock ... is that it would represent a further worsening of the (so far limited) trend by colleges to look at their campus art collections as assets that can be stripped and sold off to pay for other needs. If that practice ever becomes legitimized, no campus collection is safe. That is the main thing at issue in the fight to prevent the Pollock from being sold. ... And it trumps any and all other benefits that a sale might bring."

My question is: how do we know that? How do we know that it trumps all the other benefits a sale might bring without a close examination of what those benefits are? Imagine a case where a college has suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in flood damage that isn't covered by insurance (nor is there any FEMA aid available) and, if it doesn't figure out a way to come up with a hundred million dollars or two, it's going to have to cut lots of academic and sports programs, fire a bunch of employees, eliminate several scholarship programs for needy students, etc. And imagine too that there happens to be an art museum directly across the street that is willing to pay $200 million for the work, and to promise never to charge admission to members of the college community, and, for good measure, to agree that the work can be hung back in its original location for three months out of every year. Now, of course, in many ways this is a completely unrealistic example, but do we really want to say that, in those circumstances, it would still be wrong for the college to go ahead with the sale, because to do so would increase, in some vague, unquantifiable way, the odds that some other school with some other valuable painting would look to sell it?

The bottom line for me is that there is no way of avoiding the hard work of examining the specific circumstances of each individual proposed sale. How many people get to see the work now? Is the school able to properly maintain the work? What needs is the sale intended to address? What are the alternatives to a sale? Are there other sources of funds available? What would the consequences be of not selling? And on and on. It may well be that, after thinking about these questions, the great majority of proposed deaccessionings will seem to be a bad idea. But I don't think the questions can just be ignored.