Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Against Prissy Fatwas

Felix Salmon weighs in on the ongoing deaccession debate. He endorses the "Ellis Rule", i.e., that deaccessioning is fine "provided that you ensure that the institution or individual to whom you sell commits in some binding form to equal or higher conservational standards and equal or higher public access." And he cites the Eakins that made its way from the National Academy to LACMA (mentioned, through tears, here) as an example of "a classic positive-sum bargain which benefits both institutions and the general public."

He also doesn't think much of Tyler Green's "let them fail" approach: "If the National Academy were to adopt Ellis's rule, then the worst-case scenario would effectively be what Green is talking about here: it keeps on selling off its collection to other museums until there's nothing left. On the other hand, if such sales manage to keep the institution alive and thriving, attracting new artists who donate valuable examples of their own work, then we end up at a place which is unambiguously better than closing."

He concludes: "I do hope that this debate makes it out of the blogosphere and into the realm of the Association of Art Museum Directors, whose prissy fatwa on the National Academy is a classic example of rules-based rather than principles-based silliness. With a bit more imagination and a bit less ideological fervor, everybody in the museum world, including the all-important general public, could benefit."

Meanwhile, Richard Lacayo (who I should point out is not in the "let them fail" camp: he concedes that "sometimes a museum must sell something to avoid collapse") offers some thoughts of his own on the Ellis Rule, and continues to stick with the slippery-slope argument: "I continue to believe that a regime that never penalizes emergency deaccessioning would tempt too many museums to treat their collections as part of their revenue stream." Responding to an earlier post of mine wondering "why should we expect museums to abuse the prerogative of emergency deaccessioning when we assume that the same museums will act judiciously when deciding to sell art for the sanctioned purpose of raising funds to buy new art," he points to "the recent examples of the Barnes Foundation, the National Academy Museum and the L. A. Museum of Contemporary Art [which] show that the danger of lax institutional management is more real than the danger of museums selling important work to buy new work, which is something you see a lot less of" (my emphasis). Recognizing that the word "important" may be doing a lot of the work in that sentence, and leaving aside for the moment the point that if you agree with Ellis and Salmon that a sale from Museum A to Museum B is not a bad thing you should have no fear of sliding down that particular slope, I wonder if that's really true as an empirical matter. Do we see a lot more "lax institutional management" (on the scale of the Barnes/National Academy/MOCA) than sales by museums in order to acquire more art? I suspect it may be that, since the latter is uncontroversial, we may not "see" a lot of it, but that doesn't mean it isn't happening.