Tuesday, March 31, 2009

I think they need better talking points

Ford Bell, President of the American Association of Museums, has a letter to the editor of The New York Times, responding to the Floyd Norris piece I mentioned here.

He writes in to say that Norris failed "to consider the essential point of museum collections: once an object falls under the aegis of a museum, it is held in the public trust, to be accessible to present and future generations."

But, as I keep saying: THEN WHY ARE THEY SELLING THEM?

Just this past Friday, we learned that the Montclair Art Museum was going to (aggressively) sell off a number of objects, including a "classic" Pollock drawing. Was that work, having fallen under the aegis of a museum, not held in the public trust, to be accessible to present and future generations?

Recently the Indianapolis Museum of Art, to much praise, set up a public database of all the objects that, despite their having fallen under its aegis and therefore being held in the public trust to be accessible to present and future generations, it decided to sell off, thereby making them inaccessible to present and future generations.

Again: are the works held in trust to be accessible to present and future generations, or not?

As one honest museum director put it: It's B.S.

In his letter, Bell also argues that "allowing a museum to peddle its collection to cover operating debts would be like allowing a financial fiduciary, such as a bank, to raid assets held in trust to cover a hole in its own balance sheet." I dealt with this argument back in December (I figure if they're just going to keep recyling the same old arguments, I can just recycle mine):

"This is an interesting sounding analogy, but is it right? Do museums have the same relationship to the works in their collections as banks do to the assets they hold for their customers? Museums aren't holding the works in trust for someone else. They own them. I'm not sure it's a useful way of looking at things to say that the works belong to 'the people' and are merely 'held' by the museum. For one thing, what people? The people of a particular city? State? Nation? And even if you do think of it this way, what would be wrong with a sale between two New York museums -- say the National Academy sold to the Met? Wouldn't that just be like the bank moving my money from one of my accounts to another?

"What strikes me as most odd about this whole argument, however, is that nobody, including the AAM, thinks museums should never sell work. It's okay to sell -- just as long as you use the proceeds to buy art, rather than expand or improve your facilities, or increase the hours you're open to the public, or improve your educational programs, etc. So really it's fine for the bank to 'raid the assets' it holds in trust -- as long as they're raided for the right purposes."