Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Museums in this day and age have to learn how to share better"

When I read Carol Vogel's story today about the Brooklyn Museum's decision to transfer ownership of its costume collection to the Met, I found myself wondering what the deaccession police would say about it. After all, here was a museum parting with a collection Vogel tells us is "widely considered one of the best in the world" -- a collection, we have recently been reminded, that, like all museum collections, is held "in trust" for The People, the way a bank holds the assets of its depositors. The director of the museum admits the collection is "a highly important part of our history." Surely this cannot stand!

Well, apparently it can. Chief of Police Lee Rosenbaum pronounces the deal "a win-win arrangement," a "partnership benefiting both institutions" (presumably because, under the arrangement, though the Brooklyn Museum no longer owns the collection, it will (quoting from Vogel's article) "be able to include the collection in shows" and "both museums planned to present exhibitions in 2010 focusing on different portions" of the collection).

I don't know enough about Ed Winkleman's general views on deaccessioning to know if he qualifies for a badge, but he also approves: "In the end, as difficult as this must have been, it seems the responsible decision: it protects the collection, it pays proper homage to how it came to be, and most importantly it ensures the public will have access to the collection moving forward."

So far, in fact, I haven't seen a single criticism of the transaction.

Here's my question: what if the deal were exactly the same in every way except that the Met threw in a couple million dollars? Maybe I'm wrong, but something tells me we'd be looking at a very different reaction right now. More along the lines of: HOW DARE THEY?

In this connection, I received an interesting email today from arts journalist Daniel Grant:

"It has occurred to me that part of the reason that AAM and AAMD seek to place obstacles in the way of deaccessioning at museums (proceeds must be used to purchase more objects) is a fear and scorn of private ownership. The belief exists that a work of art consigned to a museum's storage vaults in perpetuity is preferable to the enjoyment an owner (and that person's friends and family) may receive from viewing the object. In the 1980s, there was great fear of the Japanese buying everything in America, and now we may be in fear of Russians or Indians or Saudis or Chinese buyers who will rob us of our heritage. In that regard, the AAM and AAMD restrictions may serve as a type of tariff or embargo on global trade. Others appear to be more worried about the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas snatching up treasures from New York City, Philadelphia, Nashville and other major cities. (That's not xenophobia but just snobbery: If those hicks want to look at real art, let them come to the Big Apple.)

"The fact is, artworks and antiquities have come down to us precisely because private owners have been so solicitous of these objects, and the art market has allowed these pieces to pass to people who take care of them. Museums, on the other hand, acquire things and hide most of them from view, only allowing the rare doctoral candidate to see something once in a while. Certainly, tax laws encourage donations to museums and other nonprofit institutions, which is well and good. Perhaps, provisions can be enacted that prompt museums to share the objects they aren't planning to ever display -- if I remember correctly, among the items that the New-York Historical Society sold off 20 some-odd years ago when it faced financial turmoil were 50 Civil War cannonballs -- but the major museums have shown themselves to be loath to give up anything. Until then, the option of the market should not be squashed, with oversight of a state attorney general."