Sunday, January 17, 2010

More on the Fresno Museum Closing

I've been meaning to mention this interesting story in the LA Times on the closing of the Fresno Metropolitan Museum.

First, the story confirms that the museum's entire art collection will now "be sold at auction."

So we've got a real-life reminder that if we're unwilling to let a financially-troubled museum sell one or two works, the result may well be that it ends up having to sell all its works.

Now, it's interesting to read that the whole collection here "has been appraised at a value of around $2.1 million." Given that the museum has debts of "between $4.4 million and $4.8 million," this probably wasn't a case where deaccessioning could have been of much help.

But in theory, it could have been, and it still seems silly to me to say that, no matter the circumstances, a museum may never sell work to keep from having to shut its doors. Suppose that, instead of $2 million, the museum's collection was worth $200 million, or more. Would we still rather it close (and thus have to sell its entire collection at auction) than sell one or two works and stay afloat?

Michael Rushton says the answer is yes, because, in the long run, that will lead to better museum management overall. Actually, that's not quite right. What he says is that, if we relax the norms against deaccessioning, "we could see an unwelcome shift in museum management" (my emphasis). Well, sure, we could see that. But maybe we wouldn't. Maybe if we removed the deaccessioning taboo, we'd find that it isn't doing very much work at all towards improving museum management. Maybe we'd find that museums continue to be managed about as well as they are now. Consider in this context the "good" kind of deaccessioning: deaccessioning to raise money to buy more art. (For example.) Do we think that leads to lax asset management by museums? Do they spend their acquisitions budgets unwisely because they know they can always just sell some more work (rip it right out of the "public trust") any time they'd like to acquire something? Does it make them less diligent about fundraising etc.? I don't know, but no one seems to worry about that in the area of acquisitions.

The larger point, though, is: even assuming the deaccessioning taboo leads to somewhat better museum management in general, how do we know how much that better management is worth and when do its costs get large enough that they outweigh those benefits? It's not so much a time inconsistency problem as one of balancing certain costs (today and in the future) against extremely hard to measure benefits (today and in the future). So, according to the LA Times story, Fresno is part of "a growing list of about 20 U.S. museums of various types and sizes that have folded in the last year." In addition to that, "dozens of other museums have been forced to trim budgets, cancel or postpone exhibitions and/or layoff staff." At what point do we decide that the (certain) costs of the no-deaccessioning rule outweigh the (possible) benefits? When the National Academy closes its doors? When we lose the Detroit Institute?

I think, before signing on to accept these very real costs, I'd like to see a lot more evidence that relaxing the norm against deaccessioning -- even very slightly, as in the Dobrzynski Proposal -- would have such grave consequences for museum management generally.