Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Dark Knight

LA Times art critic Christopher Knight was not impressed with my Art in America piece on deaccessioning. He responds here. The strange thing is that his ultimate conclusions -- that "when such sales inevitably happen, they need to be done with forethought and care" and "the American public trusts their tax-subsidized museum professionals to use their art collections wisely and for their benefit" -- don't seem that different from my own. A few observations in reply.

Knight says he was "stopped cold" by my assertion that the anti-deaccessionist position is "usually justified on the ground that works in museum collections are held 'in trust' for the public and therefore cannot be sold." He claims never to have "heard that 'usual justification' before."


Here is AAM President Ford Bell, in a letter to the editor of The New York Times, a couple of weeks ago:

"But it is important 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. 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."

Here is an earlier version of the same thing:

"An analogy we use is that allowing a museum to trade its collection to cover operating debts would be like allowing a financial fiduciary, such as a bank, to raid assets it holds in a trust to cover a hole in its own balance sheet. This would be inconceivable. It should be equally inconceivable for a museum to raid the assets placed in trust with it."

Here is Jori Finkel in the New York Times:

"But several directors drew a much harder line, noting that museums get tax-deductible donations of art and cash to safeguard art collections for the public. Selling off any holdings for profit would thus betray that trust."

Here is chief-of-deaccession-police Lee Rosenbaum:

"The tax exemptions that are granted to nonprofit institutions and the tax deductions allowed to donors are the way by which the American public subsidizes museums and their acquisitions. The objects are held in trust for us by these nonprofit institutions."

And here is one prominent museum director (who acknowledges the usual justification in the course of calling it "B.S."):

"We museum directors can huff and puff about how once we bring these artworks into our collections ... they become this special trust that is the patrimony of our cities and that they're held in trust for future generations."

I could go on, but I think it's fair to say that if Knight has "never heard" the "held in trust" argument against deaccessioning, he hasn't been following the debate that closely.

He also makes the bizarre claim that "one prime reason" for LA MOCA's financial problems is that the chairman of their board "is a Zaretskian who figured that if MOCA was spending money it didn't have, it really didn't matter: When crisis hit and the time came to pay the piper, the museum could just peel off a masterpiece from its collection and save the day." Is there any evidence at all for that accusation?

A final point for now. Knight complains that (until the Art in America piece) I "never made a sustained argument" explaining my position. I thought these arguments (1, 2, 3) were reasonably sustained, at least as blog posts go. But, more importantly, I do want to emphasize that what I see myself as having been doing during this debate is pointing out the inconsistencies in, the hypocrisy that is built into, the conventional art world view on deaccessioning (namely that it is perfectly fine when the proceeds are used to buy more art, but absolutely forbidden for all other purposes). I have not tried to sketch out (as Adrian Ellis has done) an affirmative case in favor of more deaccessioning. The case for deaccessioning makes itself, in the individual circumstances in which the question arises:

A museum wants to sell a couple of works to avoid shutting down (the National Academy).

A university wants to sell some work because of a $200 million dip in its endowment (Brandeis and the Rose).

A medical school decides that it can think of better uses for $68 million than having it hang on the wall in a little-visited gallery (Jefferson University).

And so on.

We may or may not think sales were justified in each of those cases. But that's a discussion the anti-deaccessioning rules prevent from happening. All I have been suggesting, instead, is that each proposed sale be analyzed on its own merits, rather than assuming that it's always wrong, no matter the circumstances. To be sure, museum sales should always be "done with forethought and care," but I am not at all afraid to "trust [our] tax-subsidized museum professionals to use their art collections wisely and for [our] benefit."