Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Deaccession Questions

In The Amherst New Era Progress, Christa Desrets reports that the former director of Randolph College’s Maier Museum of Art, who resigned in protest over the school’s decision to deaccession four paintings last year, "has been granted a fellowship with the Smithsonian Institution to conduct research for a book on the practice of selling items from museum collections for profit."

The story quotes someone from the Smithsonian as saying
the book will be about "the importance of understanding the notion of deaccessioning, and how that relates to museum ethics. Our museum association’s code of ethics states that if you deaccession, the money is to be put back into the museum collections. So that’s what she’s looking into — how is that implemented or not implemented."

That sounds interesting, and I look forward to it, but I'd be even more interested in a book that doesn't start with an uncritical acceptance of the norm that you can only deaccession to buy more art and instead explores to what extent, and in what circumstances, that norm seems justified. Among the issues that book could explore are the following.

Given that money is fungible, to what extent does the distinction between proceeds-used-for-buying-art and proceeds-used-for-other-purposes make sense? Imagine a museum that has $100 in annual operating expenses and wants to acquire $20 worth of new art. It has $100 available to spend. Under the AAMD rule, it would be okay for it to spend the $100 on operating expenses and deaccession some artwork in order to raise the $20 it needs to acquire the desired new art. That would be fine. No one would wax apoplectic. There would be no AAMD boycott of the museum. But if instead the museum takes the $100 and spends $80 of it on operating expenses and $20 on the desired new art, and then deaccessions the same existing artwork in order to raise the additional $20 it now needs to meet its operating expenses -- well, now we have a great catastrophe. How can that be?

Another question worth exploring is whether it's sensible to draw such a sharp distinction between the acquisition of art, on the one hand, and other ways museums spend money, on the other. Take, for example, Whitechapel Gallery, only because it was just in the news earlier this week. It recently completed a
$20 million renovation and expansion -- a "desperately needed" makeover. "The added space will allow the gallery to remain open continuously, whereas before it had to close about 10 weeks a year when installing new art. Its educational space was too small to accommodate even an average-size school class, and the former library had no wheelchair access." Is it not possible to see those things as every bit as important to the institution's mission as the acquisition of additional artwork? Is keeping the museum open an extra 10 weeks a year not a good art-related reason? Does expanding space for education not count either? 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?

I think this whole issue is a lot more complicated than a lot of people let on. I'm glad someone's writing a book about it.