Monday, December 21, 2009

"No one wants to sell your collection ..."

"... but we’ve had the collection in storage for 3 years and we felt that this was urgent enough that we needed these funds to save this program."

The Hollywood Entertainment Museum is auctioning off items from its collection, not to buy more Hollywood memorabilia, but to preserve its educational programs. Quick, someone alert the Deaccession Police!

Aren't these items held in the public trust, to be accessible to future generations of Hollywood memorabilia lovers? The museum is a 501(c)(3) that enjoys the same tax benefits as any art museum. So why is it okay for it to sell its collection but a great crime when a museum wants to sell a work and use the proceeds for anything other than buying more art (including to keep from having to shut its doors)? If it's not the tax exemptions that convert a museum's assets to the "public trust," what is it?

Speaking of which, let me recommend a good piece by Evelyn Brody and John Tyler at PhilanthropyRoundtable entitled How Public is Private Philanthropy? An excerpt:

"There is a long list of tax-favored treatments ... that various levels of government afford to individuals and businesses ..., without impairing or prejudicing the underlying autonomy and private nature of the beneficiaries of such treatment. For example, individuals enjoy deductions for the mortgage interest and property taxes they pay on their homes; the exclusion of ... gain on the sale of their principal residences; deductions or exclusions for retirement contributions, health insurance, and tuition; and tax credits for higher education, dependent care, and children. Government does not claim that it is thereby entitled to dictate the lifestyle, consumption and savings patterns, childbearing and child-rearing choices, furniture tastes, or college majors and courses of study, or to make any other such decisions for individuals who claim these deductions and credits."

As I've said before, no one thinks "we" own every asset of every every church, school, etc. in the country. What makes works of art any different?