Thursday, June 16, 2011

""In the end, I think it's the best for the institution and the students and the artwork."

I've asked a number of times before, what if a donor gave work to a museum with the intention that it be sold?  (See, for example, here.)  The anti-deaccessionists love to appeal to "donor intent" when it's a reason to oppose a sale.  They also love to appeal to the notion of the "public trust" as a reason to oppose a sale when donor intent doesn't come into play (as, for example, where the relevant work was purchased by the museum, rather than donated).  But what if the two are in conflict?  What if the donor's intent is that the work be sold (as in Felix Salmon's Museum of Underappreciated Art)?  Do we honor that intent?  Or do we ignore the donor's intent and hold onto the work because it belongs to "the public"?

The Wichita Eagle reports this week on a real-life example of this conflict.  Kansas's Bethany College is deaccessioning a bunch of artwork, and plans to use the money to "finance student scholarships."  (I know, repulsive, right?  But leave that to the side for the moment.)  The school says "a donor gave the college a piece in 2009 with the intent that the college sell it" and that they are "not selling any items whose donors won't allow it."
This puts the Deaccession Police in a real bind.  On the one hand, we know, from the Fisk case, and the Barnes, and others, that they really really care about donor intent.  They hate to see a donor's intent ever violated.  It's just awful when that happens.  And yet . . . something tells me that, in this case, they'll be willing to make an exception,  Donor intent is not the be all and end all, you know.  Those works don't really belong to Bethany; they're simply holding them in trust for us, the public.  They must remain accessible to present and future generations.  Bethany really ought to be sanctioned, this is an outrageous breach of a very, very core principle of ethics.

That is how it will go down, isn't it?