Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Imperious Waving (UPDATED)

George Wallace notices a distinct lack of engagement with the actual issues in Christopher Knight's response to my Art in America piece yesterday:

"Christopher Knight's art writing belongs on the very short list of things that the much-abused Los Angeles Times still has left to be proud of these days. That said, it is a disappointment to see that he has himself largely succumbed to argumentum ad strawmanum when he isn't stooping to outright argumentum ad hominem, dismissing both Zaretsky ('Such is the nature of routine blogging') and Art in America ('The magazine had a shakeup in its editorial ranks last year, but if this is the best they can do . . . , it was apparently a wasted effort') with little more than an imperious wave rather than really engaging his opponent on substance."

He also offers what I think is a reasonable summary of the competing positions:

"Zaretsky -- who can take some satisfaction, I suppose, from Knight's suggestion that there is a faction of 'Zaretskians' among the managers of the nation's museums -- objects less to the concept of 'the public trust' than to that concept being used as a great 'Thou Shalt Not' to shackle all but a very limited class of deaccessions and dispositions. Where Zaretsky sees imprisonment and an unreasonable restriction of curatorial freedom of choice, Knight and AAMD see a sort of protective custody, a binding of administrators' hands for their own good, to save them from their own worst instincts, or to serve a perceived Greater Good. Zaretsky would trust museum managers to exercise sound judgment, Knight and company would prefer that judgment to be exercised only within strictly proscribed limits" (emphasis added).

I also liked this very sensible comment from Pamela Logan of the Kham Aid Foundation:

"The question of whether it is ethical or allowable to deaccess a work of art should be a private matter between the museum and the donor who contributed the piece. Wise donors with strong feelings against deaccession should insist on a donation agreement that forbids it. Wise museums that want to preserve a parachute to be used in time of emergency should be courageous enough to ask donors to grant them flexibility. Museum boards who spend funds frivolously should be subject to censure, dismissal, or prosecution using the existing checks and balances that govern all nonprofits."

And for another, more positive review of the Art in America piece, see The Deaccessioning Blog.

And the always-measured Tyler ("The art can be the art anywhere. It can be seen anywhere") Green jumps in primarily (1) to argue that "held in the public trust" does not equal "cannot be sold" (although what he actually says is that Knight "does not equivocate 'public trust' with 'cannot be sold,'" which is kind of funny; in any event, he should tell it to AAM President Ford Bell) and (2) to defend Knight's strange charge that the chairman of LA MOCA blithely spent money the museum didn't have because he figured that "the museum could just peel off a masterpiece from its collection and save the day" (I'm aware that he discussed that possibility after the fact -- I quoted it on the blog -- but that's a far cry from accusing him of overspending because he "figured" he could sell work to cover the deficit, which of course was not what ended up happening at all). He also wonders if I have "any clients that are considering a deaccessioning." I do not.

UPDATE: Derek Fincham says Knight's criticisms were "lazy":

"If you want to have a serious discussion on the merits of a policy, then you should probably avoid distorting the opposing viewpoint, provide some evidence for your position, or at least take the time to read your opponnent's views. In this case, painting Zaretsky with a broad 'deregulation' brush, and revealing a real distaste for lawyers generally cuts against any broader point Knight may have had."

He adds:

"That appears to be a real shame in this case as Zaretsky probably doesn't disagree too much with Knight's core philosophy on collections management. It seems to me Zaretsky points out the flaws and inherent inconsistencies in the stated policy. ... That seems to me to be a very valuable argument, and an important role that few others have done. He goes on to discuss the prominent deaccession examples of recent years, including the National Academy to avoid closing its doors, or Universities want to sell works because of substantial drops in endowments, or Thomas Jefferson decides to sell its $68 million work because nobody visits it, or a universal museum attempts to shift gears because of a declining local economy. Now we can challenge these stated views, and certainly should maintain healthy skepticism of these attempts to deaccession works. However the current rules prevent and even preclude this kind of debate."