Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tell me again about the "public trust" (New York Times edition)

The New York Times notices that hey, maybe museums don't hold their works in trust for the public after all. They can -- and do -- sell them all the time.

The story begins by cataloging a bunch of recent sales:

"On Thursday at Sotheby’s in New York, the Cleveland Museum of Art is putting 32 old-master paintings up for auction, and the J. Paul Getty Museum is offering 15. In the meantime the Pennsylvania Museum of Fine Arts and the Carnegie Museum of Art are selling five paintings each, and the Art Institute of Chicago is selling two Picassos, a Matisse and a Braque at Christie’s in London. Last week the New Jersey Historical Society sold 17 items at Christie’s in New York."

It then trots out a number of museum directors to tell us it's No Big Deal.

David Franklin, the director of the Cleveland Museum, says deaccessioning is "a normal act," and to be "encouraged."

Met director Thomas Campbell says "deaccessioning is a healthy part of the management of any museum collection."

MoMA director Glen Lowry says theirs is "an evolving collection."

We end with another quote from Cleveland's Franklin, who says deaccessioning is "kind of a Humane Society. ... Maybe some of these works can be loved by someone else."

Hmmm. It feels like something is missing from the story, however.

Where are the quotes from representatives of the AAMD informing us that once an object falls under the aegis of a museum, it is held in the public trust, to be accessible to present and future generations.

Where are the worries that somebody will say, Why should I give this to you? What guarantee do I have that you're not going to sell this tomorrow? (In fact, we are told that MoMA will "refus[e] any gift that prohibits a possible future sale"!)

Why don't we hear from Assemblyman Brodsky and his concerns about a "massive transfer of art held in the public trust into private hands"?

It's all very strange.

Look, either works are held by museums in the public trust, or they're not.

Sales will either cause donors not to give any more, or they won't.

But you can't say, in one breath, that sales are normal, healthy, etc. (when the proceeds are used to buy art) and then, in the next breath, scream that sales of the very same works are unethical, repulsive, Stalinist (when the proceeds are used for any other purpose).

If it's okay (or more than okay: healthy, normal, to be encouraged) for the Art Institute of Chicago to sell those Picassos, Matisses, and Braques in order to buy yet more art, then it's got be okay to sell the same works for other worthy purposes, right? Right?