Monday, January 05, 2009

"The current strictures around deaccessioning do not encourage either intelligent, vigilant conservation or wider public access"

A bit more on deaccessioning. I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion a piece from a couple years back by Adrian Ellis, the founder of AEA Consulting. Adrian and I had a number of interesting conversations around that article when it came out, and, prompted by the latest deaccessioning brouhaha – and in particular my recent exchange with Richard Lacayo (see here and here, and, for an earlier exchange last summer, “Rule Utilitarianism in Iowa City” and this response to it) – he sent along the following over weekend (with permission to post it). I think his central point – that as long as 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," there isn't a lot to complain about – is hard to argue with. The fuller version:

"I want to take the opportunity of your testing and probing of the AAMD and AMA stand on the circumstances in which selling works of art is acceptable to regurgitate and develop slightly the argument we discussed a couple of years ago.

"'Act utilitarianism' is a consequentialist theory of ethics that argues that the right action is the one which produces the greatest amount of happiness or pleasure for the greatest number of people. Act utilitarianism is opposed to 'rule utilitarianism', which states that the morally right action is the one that is in accordance with a rule whose general observance would create the most happiness.

"This succinct definition of the two main branches of utilitarianism comes cut and paste from Wikipedia but is no less accurate for that. Act utilitarians require an analysis of each case and a judgment as to actual consequences. Rule utilitarians are nearer to a position of 'Well, what if everyone did that?!'

"The current debate around the slippery slope of deaccessioning, including your exchange with Richard Lacayo, is basically a case study of the debate between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism - or in Layco's case a modified rule utilitarianism, as he would, sensibly, have the Barnes sell something from their reserve collection if that were the alternative to the relocation that Judge Ott has sanctioned in Philly. (And it would, as I think you have also observed, also have afforded the judge a route that conformed more closely to the cy-près doctrine than the ruling did.)

"Both your and Lacayo's arguments are based on the premise that deaccessioning and using the proceeds for purposes other than acquiring (or, in the ICOM variant, conserving) art works is probably a bad thing. The question that you are grappling with is therefore whether it is worse than the alternatives (institutional collapse) and whether sanctioning it in one context (e.g. the Barnes or the National Academy) would encourage others in less dire circumstances to pursue (moral hazard).

"I fully subscribe to a consequentialist perspective and I believe that the prime responsibility of those who are tasked with stewardship of works of art are, first, to make sure that they are well looked after and, secondly, to ensure the broadest public access to and enjoyment of them (intellectual as well as physical). Those who own works of art should be judged above all on how they perform these two tasks. This is especially true of public and nonprofit institutions that own them. But I don't think property rights are absolute: these responsibilities accrue to private individuals and corporations owning works of art too, albeit to a lesser extent.

"That said, the current strictures around deaccessioning do not encourage either intelligent, vigilant conservation or wider public access because the perspective that informs them is one gained by looking through the wrong end of the telescope - it focuses on the institution and not the work of art. Suppose that the rule were radically altered to: you can deaccession and spend the money on whatever you want - a new roof, working capital, education programs, or even a boffo night out with your chums on the board -- 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.

"These qualifications vis a vis stewardship and access clearly represent something less than a free market, but they represent a market of some sort, and one in which museums are not the only players - anyone can enter the fray. If some feckless institutions fritter away their assets, so be it - those assets will be better looked after and more often seen that they would in the fritterer hangs onto them, probably out of public sight and below acceptable conservational standards. And those institutions that are in straightened circumstances not of their own making could make a judicious decision about deaccessioning without the current radio-active hyper-politicized stigma surrounding them.

"It may be that such a circumscribed market would in effect be so illiquid as to be of little help. But I suspect this is not the case - that there are still enough cash rich institutions (or boards) around to make it reasonably liquid. Maybe the AAMD could be the market maker or at least the regulator.

"I think this is more than an intellectual conceit. There is no single capital market in the museum sector and in periods of rapid demographic and financial change, such as those we are experiencing, there are institutions that are in a dire, and mission-crimping, state but that have non capitalized assets in their collection (but not on their balance sheet) that would need only incremental adjustment to allow them to reinvigorate themselves and regain a relevance and verve without which their continued genteel decline is almost guaranteed.

"At least worth an airing ...

"Happy New Year."