Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Long and short of it (UPDATED)

The big news just before the weekend was that the city of Long Beach was, according to an LA Times headline, "threatening" the Long Beach Museum of Art with the "sale of artwork."

According to the Times, the city owns the museum and 1,400 works of art acquired prior to 1985. In 1999, the museum borrowed money for construction of a new two-story exhibition pavilion. The city agreed to be responsible for the bond debt if the museum couldn't pay it back. Now, with the "chronically deficit-ridden" museum apparently unable to pay off the debt, and the city's own budget deficit at around $20 million, one city councilman was quoted as saying "all options will remain on the table until the bond is paid off."

LA Times art critic Christopher Knight zoomed right past repulsive to "Stalin-esque."

The Deaccessioning Blog says "if this doesn't prove my point I don't know what will. Any institution that is 'critically deficit-ridden' should undergo a radical evaluation and transformation, even if closure is the answer."

I want to make a different, more narrow point, and that is that it seems to me the "public trust" argument completely breaks down in a situation like this, where it is the city itself which owns the museum and therefore it is the public, acting through their democratically elected representatives, that seems to be pushing for the sale.

That's assuming anyone is really pushing for the sale. A later story in the Contra Costa Times quotes a city official as saying: "That certainly would be a last resort as far as we're concerned. What we said is that everything is on the table, but selling art is certainly the last option." The story continues:

"The solution of selling off art was the focus of an article in the Los Angeles Times on Friday. 'We're actually a little surprised by the article because we only met with [the museum's executive director] and one of his board members once,' said [the city official]. 'The building (presently owned by the museum foundation), taking over the art (half is owned by the city, half by the foundation) or replacing the foundation and bringing in another entity who can manage the museum - all of those are preferred options. ... The museum really hasn't presented us with any offers at this point. This is in part some of our frustration. We are open to any suggestions or ideas that the museum might have. It's just that they haven't been forthcoming. And so we're now kind of down to the wire where we don't have a whole lot of time left to explore these options."

UPDATE: The Art Market Monitor: "Is Long Beach a Dictatorship?"