Monday, February 02, 2009

Midday Rose (UPDATED 2X)

The Art Market Monitor has some thoughts in response to Roberta Smith's paean to the indispensability of art, which I mentioned last night:

"It’s hard to argue with this position. The destruction of the Rose Museum is a terrible act. What seems to amplify the problem is the very success of art in recent years in market terms. Without a market value, the museum would not be a container of assets the university might view as, well, assets. The question is whether art can have great cultural value without having market value. It’s a question that lies beyond our capacity to answer. But nonetheless remains at the heart of the battle over deaccessioning, the art market and, now, the destruction of the Rose Museum."

Richard Lacayo picks up on a suggestion by Felix Salmon that, under the doctrine of "cy pres," the Massachussets attorney general could "grant a waiver and allow the university to dip into endowment funds," which would otherwise be prohibited by state law. I don't know much about the relevant Massachusetts law, but I'd be surprised if the "cy pres" doctrine could be used to avoid compliance with state law like that. "Cy pres" is a trust law doctrine which says that, if the funds in a charitable trust can no longer be devoted to the purpose for which the trust was created, they can redirected to another, related purpose (so, for example, the March of Dimes Foundation was permitted to switch from fighting polio to fighting other childhood diseases after the polio vaccine was developed). Perhaps I'm mistaken, but I don't think "cy pres" can be used to "grant a waiver" from express statutory requirements.

Lacayo also says the following:

"Meanwhile, what does all this mean for the museum association rules meant to discourage museums from selling art from their collections? Brandeis is presumed to have decided simply to close its museum in order to get around those rules and have a free hand to sell what it pleases. To some people this whole sorry episode suggests that museum association rules are such a hassle they will just encourage schools to trash their museums entirely rather than answer to anybody's code of ethics. But what it still demonstrates to me is how important the rules remain, especially for campus museums, because in times of trouble university trustees and administrators will always be tempted to look at their museums as giant piggy banks, with lots of very valuable, very portable assets. ... If there's no defensive perimeter, no way to penalize museums that sell, in no time they'll all do it. And when they do, more often than not —much more often than not — their public works will fall back into private hands."

(Salmon shows up in the comments to say: "The deaccessioning rules I think were put in place as an obstacle to museums selling off their own art. They're clearly not much use as an obstacle to universities selling off their museums' art without the museum's consent.")

I've had my say on this kind of slippery slope argument (e.g., here and here), but for now I just want to emphasize what this position entails. The slippery slopists are willing to accept the loss of at least one museum (and, if others adopt what Laurie Fendrich is calling the Brandeis Maneuver, perhaps more) to prevent the speculative risk that, if we allowed museums to sell individual artworks in times of crisis, "in no time they'll all [be doing] it." So they would rather see the Rose (and perhaps other museums) fail than take a chance on trusting the people who run our museums to responsibly exercise the discretion to occasionally sell works from their collections (just as we trust them to responsibly exercise the discretion to sell works in order to raise funds to buy more art, which nobody (well, almost nobody) objects to). (I know I will hear in response that the Rose didn't "fail," but that's not the point. The fact is that the strict, no-exceptions-under-any-circumstances policy against deaccessioning led directly to its closure, and the logic of the slippery slope argument is that we'd rather have that happen than live in a world where individual works can be sold for anything other than the purchase of more work.) As for Lacayo's concern with works falling back into private hands, couldn't that be dealt with through the adoption of the Ellis Rule?

UPDATE: On the "cy pres" issues, this post from Jack Siegel of Charity Governance Consulting LLC explains that there are some cy pres-like mechanisms built into the governing Massachusetts statute. UPDATE 2: Still more on this issue from the Brandeis student newspaper: "The current law is based on the Uniform Management of Institutional Funds Act, which Massachusetts adopted in 1975. UMIFA states that the governing board of an institution may not appropriate funds from its endowment exceeding the 'historic dollar value' of the endowment. (Historic dollar value is defined as the total value of all contributions made to an endowment at the time each of the gifts that make up that fund was donated.)"