Monday, December 29, 2008

Deaccessioning Debate in the New York Times

Jori Finkel had an evenhanded, full page story in yesterday's Arts & Leisure section under the headline: "Whose Rules Are These, Anyway?" She includes me among those who ask: "Why ... is it so wrong for a museum to sell art from its collection to raise badly needed funds?":

"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."

The answers, at least as expressed by the anti-deaccessionists quoted in the article, seem to fall into one of three categories, none of which I find particularly persuasive.

1. The art-is-not-a-commodity argument.

This view is expressed by Karol Lawson, the former director of the Randolph College art museum: "Ms. Lawson suggests that deaccessioning controversies reflect nothing less than two competing visions of art: commodity versus educational tool. At Randolph, she said, 'the people who wanted to sell the art were saying it’s the same thing as a truck or computer or a chair.'" I also assume this is what AAMD director Michael Conforti has in mind when he says "selling an object ... undermines core principles of a museum."

The argument here seems to be that we needn't look at the consequences: selling art is simply wrong. It somehow does not do justice to its nature to treat it like an asset that can be part of a market transaction, like a computer or a chair.

The problem with this argument is that, by the same logic, it would be wrong to buy art as well, and nobody seems to object when a museum goes into the market and acquires art (just as it acquires computers and chairs). More importantly, as I've been saying over and over, museums sell art all the time and no one says a word. Remember: the AAMD rule is not "thou shalt not sell art." It's "thou shalt not sell art and use the proceeds for anything other than buying more art."

So the answer can't be that selling art is, in and of itself, simply wrong. The strict anti-deaccessionist still needs to explain why it's okay to sell art for one purpose, but not for any other.

2. The slippery-slope argument.

Finkel quotes AAMD board member Dan Monroe as making this very common argument:

"It’s a classic slippery slope, this thinking goes: Letting one museum sell off two paintings paves the way for dozens of museums to sell off thousands of artworks, perhaps routinely. 'The fact is as soon as you breach this principle, everybody’s got a hardship case,' Mr. Monroe said. 'It would be impossible to control the outcome.'"

But this slippery-slope argument is subject to the same defects as all such arguments. Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosopher's Magazine, gives a good summary of those defects (he uses the example of a proposal in the U.K. to implant tracking devices under the skin of convicted sex offenders, which some objected to on the grounds that, if it were allowed to happen, the practice would then be extended to other marginalized groups):

"The problem with slippery slope arguments is that they make the location of what is contentious unclear. In this case, we need to ask: is it problematic that sex offenders have these implants or is it only a problem if the use of implants is extended to other groups in society? ... But instead of focussing on the actual wrongness of the action under debate, slippery slope arguments shift our focus to its unacceptable extensions. ... [T]hey avert our concentration from what is really at issue and make us look elsewhere."

He continues:

"A slippery slope argument can carry some weight if there is a high probability that the unacceptable consequence will in fact happen, and is actually unacceptable. The problem is that in most slippery slope arguments there is no such demonstration. [The] claim is simply an assertion. There is no particular reason to suppose that implants will be extended for use with asylum seekers. ... But unless we are given good reason to suppose implants would be extended to other groups we would not want them to be extended to, the slippery slope doesn't work. It is not enough to say, 'If you tolerate this, asylum seekers will be next.' One has to show that asylum seekers will in fact be next, or at the very least that there is a good chance they will be."

I think the same is true in this context. The claim that "allowing" (whatever that is supposed to mean) the National Academy to deaccession a couple of works would lead to thousands of other deaccessionings is simply an assertion. Do we really think that all that stands between the current status quo and a wholesale liquidation of museum collections across the nation is a sale of a couple of works by the Randolph College art museum?

And if we do, couldn't we mitigate the damage by strictly limiting the conditions under which a sale would be deemed "acceptable" (say by insisting that the museum have demonstrated serious financial hardship and that its board has thoroughly considered other alternatives), rather than ruling out the possibility entirely. Back to Baggini:

"When confronted with a slippery slope argument, two questions should be asked. First, is the practice being objected to in itself objectionable? If it is, then the foreseen extensions are irrelevant. If implants for sex offenders are wrong they are wrong, and it is an irrelevant distraction to start talking about implants in other groups of people. ... If the practice is not objectionable in itself, we then need to ask, if we start down this road, is it likely that the practice would be extended to situations where it was objectionable? Only if it is will the slippery slope argument carry any force. And even then, that may only provide reasons for creating safeguards to prevent the unwanted extension. It cannot form a direct objection to the practice itself."

So it seems to me the slippery slope argument doesn't provide a reason for objecting to "extreme financial hardship" deaccessionings like the National Academy's. If it is concerned with unwanted extensions, the AAMD should be able to address those head-on, rather than "outlawing" the practice altogether. (It's also worth noting here that, in the case of sales in order to buy more art, the slippery-slope concerns, oddly enough, seem to slip right off the radar screen; suddenly we seem to have no doubt that those charged with running our museums will act completely responsibly and not abuse the practice.)

3. The betrayal of trust argument.

Finkel says that "several directors" noted that "museums get tax-deductible donations of art and cash to safeguard art collections for the public" and selling off any holdings for profit would thus betray that trust, ... not to mention rob a community of art." I've addressed this "held in trust" argument before (see here and, via a guest poster, here), and don't have much to add here except to note that museums exist to do much more than "safeguard art collections." If a museum decides to sell one of the thousands of works it has in its collection/in storage, with the aim of upgrading its facilities, or conserving its core collection, or improving its educational offerings, or increasing the hours it's open to the public, or increasing salaries so it can attract top-notch curators, and so on, why should we see that as a betrayal of trust rather than the proper exercise of the museum's duties to serve the public interest?

As I said, none of these three arguments moves me very much. The overarching problem for the strict anti-deaccessionist, it seems to me, is that nobody is opposed to deaccessioning per se. Everyone accepts that deaccessioning to acquire more art is perfectly fine. So the problem for the anti-deaccessionist is to explain why it's okay to deaccession for one reason, but not for any other reason. Coming back to the quote of mine that Finkel included in the article, is it really the case that buying more art is always more important than anything else a museum could possibly wish to do?