Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Richard Lacayo has a characteristically thoughtful response to my latest post on the deaccession wars. Essentially, he embraces the slippery slope argument:

"If the profession didn't discourage museums from using their collections as a piggy bank, I suspect a lot of them would be doing it more often, and not bothering with the hard work of fund raising. Zaretsky calls this a slippery slope argument, which it is, but one that I find compelling because in recent years we've seen a number of institutions already going down that slope."

He says that "without some kind of penalties in place, I think we'd see a lot more examples like the one earlier this year at the University of Iowa" (where a member of the board of regents raised the possibility of exploring a sale of a very valuable Jackson Pollock, but was promptly, and loudly, shouted down).

He may well be right about that, but again I have a variation on the same question I've been asking: why don't we worry about the slippery slope when it comes to deaccessioning to acquire more art? Why don't we worry about museums using their collections as a piggy bank for that purpose? How come we're not concerned about discouraging the hard work of fund raising in the area of acquisitions?

I suspect that, if we relaxed the prohibition on non-acquisition-related deaccessioning, you'd pretty much see what we see today with respect to the "good" kind of deaccessioning. There would be a modest increase in the number of sales, but on the whole, they would be done sparingly, carefully, with a proper appreciation of the stakes involved. I don't see any reason to think we would see the sale of "thousands of artworks, perhaps routinely," as AAMD board member Dan Monroe suggested in the Times on Sunday. (It makes you wonder what kind of people the strict anti-deaccessionists think are running our museums in the first place.) My guess is that the same factors that keep museums from abusing the "freedom" they currently have to sell off works to acquire others would also keep them from running wild if we were to extend that freedom to allow sales for other good reasons.

Which leads me to one last point. In my previous post, I noted that "a slippery slope argument can carry some weight if [1] there is a high probability that the unacceptable consequence will in fact happen, and [2] [it] is actually unacceptable." The slippery slope argument doesn't tell us why deaccessioning is unacceptable; instead, it merely assumes that it is, and tells us we will get much more of it if we allow it in any one case. But remember (and I know I'm a broken record on this point): when the AAMD tells us it's okay to deaccession if you use the proceeds to buy more art, what they're really saying, it seems to me, is deaccessioning is fine if it's done for a good reason. The question I still haven't seen answered is: why is buying more art the only possible good reason?