Monday, December 15, 2008

"Is it a logical option? Yes. Is it a probable option? No, probably not"

Lee Rosenbaum breaks the news this evening that "the NY State Board of Regents' Cultural Education Committee this afternoon voted in favor of revised rules ... which would prohibit most museums and historical societies in the state from using deaccession proceeds to defray debts, operating expenses, and most capital expenses. ... This reverses the original proposed amendment, which would have allowed such proceeds to be used to satisfy debts."

One institution certainly not bound by those rules is LA MOCA, and today, at the LA Times "Culture Monster" blog, Mike Boehm considers deaccessioning as a possible solution to their problems.

He starts by stating the simple "ethical" rule that, for some people, is also the end of the discussion:

"Two leading service organizations, the American Assn. of Museums and the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, say flatly that it's unethical to sell objects from a collection -- 'deaccession' is the technical term -- except to raise funds to buy more pieces."

Notice, though, what is being (flatly) said here: there is nothing inherently wrong with selling objects from a collection. The problem comes when you sell objects from a collection and don't use the funds to buy more pieces. That, we are (flatly) told, is unethical. So what's really going on here is a judgment that "buying more pieces" (no matter how many pieces you may already have) is always and everywhere more important than . . . well, than anything else you can possibly think of. We don't even need to know what it is. It's wrong. It's unethical. It can't possibly be as important as "buying more pieces."

Boehm goes on to note that "the AAMD already has come down on New York's National Academy Museum for breaking the no-sell rule," and then adds: "The reason it's considered unethical is that museums' fundamental role is to keep beautiful, fascinating and meaningful works of nature and humankind in their community and in the public domain. Hawking them in the marketplace would, for those who set the standards for museums, be akin to Uncle Sam raiding the National Archives and putting the Declaration of Independence out to bid to help retire the national debt."

Hmmm. First, it should go without saying that not every work in every museum collection in the world is akin to the Declaration of Independence, but, more importantly, the logic of the AAM/AAMD position is that it would be fine to sell the Declaration of Independence as long as the proceeds are used to buy more historic documents. Remember: the AAM/AAMD position is not that works of art may never be sold. It's that the proceeds from sales may be used for buying more art and for no other purpose.

Second, even if one accepts that a museum's "fundamental role" is to keep artworks in its "community" and "in the public domain," there would seem to be a large number of sales that would pass muster. Take "public domain" first. Any sale from one museum to another would seem to satisfy this constraint. (Crystal Bridges, go to town!) "Community" is a little trickier. Do we define MOCA's community as California (such that the museum has an obligation to keep its artworks within the state borders -- unless, of course, the proceeds are being used to buy more art, in which case the same restrictions somehow don't apply)? Or just Los Angeles? It certainly isn't obvious to me that MoMA, for example, has special obligations to the New York City art community, as opposed to a wider national, or even international, community of art lovers. In any case, even on the narrowest conception of the relevant community, a sale from, say, the National Academy across the street to the Met, or from MOCA across town to LACMA, would keep the works in both the "community" and "the public domain" and therefore would seem to be unobjectionable under this "fundamental role" theory.

Boehm then quotes MOCA co-chairman Tom Unterman as saying "if we were in the position of the National Academy, where you weren’t able to pay your creditors, and we’re nowhere near that, then it would become more on the radar screen than it probably is now. Is it a logical option? Yes. Is it a probable option? No, probably not. I don’t want to get way ahead of the board on this because they all may wake up one morning and say that’s the best thing to do, but I’d be surprised."

He also talks to board member Jane Nathanson, who says "I think these are dire times, and I certainly have strong feelings about deaccessioning art for any other reason but buying more art.... I know those are the guidelines, and they're the guidelines I have always gone by, but sometimes one has to look at alternate possibilities .... I’m not saying it should be done, but at different times one needs to think of different solutions. It’s a solution I would entertain. Is it one that would be the best? I don’t know."