Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bailed Out Art

One of the strange features of the strict anti-deaccessioning position, it seems to me, is the whole notion of the "public trust." How is it, exactly, that works owned by museums comes to be "held in the public trust" such that they can never be sold (except to buy other art)? What is the mechanism? It is sometimes suggested that this is a function of the favorable tax treatment museums receive: because museums are exempt from property and income taxes, and donors get tax deductions for contributing to them, the "public" therefore is the true owner of the art. I've never really understood that argument. There are lots of other entities that get the same tax benefits -- churches. private schools and universities, hospitals, etc. Does the public own the MRI machines at the hospital? If a university decides to shut down the sociology department, should we step in and say, "Hey, wait a minute. That department was held in trust for us. You can't just get rid of it like that"? Does every asset ostensibly held by every non-profit really belong to us? And if not, what makes art different? How does it come to be "held in trust" when other, similarly-owned assets are not?

But if tax benefits are not enough, what about a bailout? The New York Times ran a little piece earlier this week that began:

"Many of the world’s biggest banks — and biggest recipients of government bailouts — have some of the largest collections of art. Some of the works, including abstract pieces and old masters, are hanging in hallways or boardrooms. But much of it is packed away in storage. The art owned by financial institutions should get out more — at the least to give the taxpayers, who have been so generous with the financial sector, an aesthetic return."