Friday, April 10, 2009

Hot Pursuit

One thing I did not mention in my reply to Christopher Knight's response to my Art in America piece was his reference, in an effort to show the shortcomings of my position, to the idea of a museum using sales proceeds to pay for "a boffo night out with your chums on the board." But the quoted language was not mine. It was from Adrian Ellis, who responded at the LA Times blog (scroll down to fourth comment):

"In hot and ad hominem pursuit of Donn Zaretsky, Christopher Knight refers twice and caustically to a comment that I made about how the proceeds of deaccessioning might be used - 'even [for] a boffo night out with your chums on the board'. I think that any fair-minded reader of the short posting from which this comment was culled ... will realize that I was using this example to try to show vividly that the preoccupation with the application of proceeds from sales - more art 'good'; everything else 'bad' - has blind-sided us to the issue of the fate of works of art deaccessioned.

"I have argued ... that the primary concerns of the museum profession should be the conservational standards met by the buyer and the extent of public access to which the buyer will commit in advance of the sale. These should be equal to or greater than those of the museum that is deaccessioning the work. If there is not a commitment by the buyer to meeting these conditions, and in precise and explicit terms that can be policed by AAMD or another recognized body, then I would argue that the disposal should be censured, irrespective of what happens to the proceeds."

(Knight responds -- see the fifth comment -- but not on the substance.)

So, far from calling for "deregulation," Ellis is calling for a different kind of regulation, one that is arguably stronger than the current regime. Under the current rules, there is a whole swath of transactions that receive no scrutiny at all: all you have to do is say the proceeds will be used for future acquisitions and you're in the clear. Under Ellis's "proposal of a tightly circumscribed alternative approach to the current AAMD and ICOM positions," all museum sales would be "regulated" to ensure the public interest is properly served. Senator Gramm he is not.

Lee Rosenbaum also has a rebuttal to my piece up, but the funny thing is, though she sets out to "debunk ... [my] two Big Ideas," on what she calls "the bigger of Donn's Big Ideas," which she paraphrases as . . .

"the argument that museums hold work in public trust is inconsistent with the widely accepted principle that it's okay to sell art for some purposes (i.e., to purchase other art; to care for the collection)" . . .

she agrees with me. I have tried to show over and over again (see here for a recent example) that the AAMD/AAM approach is internally inconsistent: if it is true, as AAM President Ford Bell likes to say, that the reason works cannot be sold to pay for operating expenses is that they are "held in trust" for future generations, then museums should not be selling them for any purpose, including to buy more art. Lee's response to that is: Yeah, you're right, they shouldn't be selling works for any purpose, let's actually tighten the rules to prevent them from doing so ("To me, this deaccession-disconnect argues instead for a significant TIGHTENING of standards: As I've often stated, the only works that should be sold from the public domain are those that truly don't belong there"). That's certainly one approach. Either the works are held in the public trust and shouldn't be sold, or they are not, in which case why privilege one use of proceeds over all possible others? Much of my writing on this subject over the last few months has been aimed simply at getting people to focus on this inconsistency. Lee, perhaps alone among the anti-deaccessionists, at least acknowledges that the inconsistency is there.

Having said that, let me turn briefly to Lee's discussion of the other of my two Big Ideas (the "less big Big Idea"?), which she paraphrases as: "If museum collections are, in fact, held in public trust, then there's no damage to that trust if the works sold by museums are purchased by other museums." Here Lee trots out an argument she's used before, but which I've never really understood. She says that the sold works "are already our stuff. Americans for whom museums hold these works in trust shouldn't have to pay for them twice." The argument is that, when Museum A sells a work to Museum B, "we" (Americans) have paid for the work twice: once when Museum A acquired it, and a second time when Museum B buys it.

But is that really true? Put aside the question whether this ownership principle applies to all non-profits, or just to museums (do "we" own everything in every school and hospital and church and other non-profit by virtue of the tax deductions that help support them?), and go along with the assumption that everything every museum owns is "our stuff." Suppose Museum A has two paintings and has $100 in the bank (it's a very small museum). And suppose Museum B has one painting and $200 in the bank. So "we," "the public," "Americans," have three paintings (Museum A's two plus Museum B's one) and $300 ($100 from Museum A and $200 from Museum B). That's our stuff. Now Museum A sells one of its paintings to Museum B for $100. That leaves Museum A with one painting and now $200 in the bank, and Museum B now with two paintings but just $100 in the bank. What do "we" have now? Three paintings and $300. Just as before. It's like moving money from one of my bank accounts (called, say, the "National Academy Account") to another of my accounts (called, say, the "Crystal Bridges Account"). I just don't see how "Americans" are harmed when a work moves from one of their museums to another.