Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"Watching a museum die is painful."

Judith Dobrzynski reports on the closing of the Fayetteville, NC, Museum of Art.  This is a case where deaccessioning could not have kept the museum afloat -- "of 22 works offered in a live auction [last week], just six sold -- bringing a total of $13,000" -- but it's an important reminder of what happens when we let a museum go under.  If we prevent them from selling one work (or two, or three) to stay solvent, then the result may be that they end up selling that same work anyway ... along with every other work in the collection.  Clearly, that's much better.

That certainly seems to be the implication of Lee Rosenbaum's grilling of National Academy director Carmine Branagan, three years after the museum sold two paintings from its collection to pay operating expenses.  Branagan says they "profoundly" regret the loss of the two paintings, "but there was no choice. There was no choice! So the collective Academy made the decision that staying open and being able to have the opportunity to continue this historic legacy was what was important. ... If the decision was made not to do it, the Academy wouldn't exist."

That's not good enough for Lee, who issues Branagan a Deaccession Police citation for Insufficient Remorsefulness and forwards her Incident Report to the AAMD bureau ("I can't imagine that AAMD's arbiters of museum ethics will be pleased by Barnagan's responses to my questions").

So just to review:

Selling two paintings to keep from having to close a 175-year old museum:  Deeply, deeply troubling.  "Deplorable."  Repulsive. The AAMD would like to have a word with you.

Selling eight paintings -- including works by Monet, Gauguin, and Pissarro -- to buy a single work by Caillebotte:  No problem.  Knock yourself out.  Kind of a Humane Society.  It's not like there aren't thousands of other pictures at the museum.  Get a grip.

(I do note that, alone among the Deaccession Police, Lee opposed the latter sale too -- because it violated her principle (which is not, it's worth noting, the principle of the AAMD or the New York Board of Regents) that only works "deemed unworthy of the museum's collection" should be sold.  But her criticism of that sale -- which you can read here -- is extremely mild in comparison to her criticism of the "deplorable" National Academy sales.)

In the course of making the case for the eight-for-one deaccessioning, Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee says the following:

"[I]n cases like these, I think, it's important to be realistic, and not to take refuge in principle. (Principles are fine, but they have a habit of short-circuiting active thought and judgment)."

I couldn't agree more.  In the Great Deaccession Debate, it's the AAMD, the Brodskyites, the Deaccession Police who want to take refuge in principle.  They have their principle, their prissy fatwa -- thou shalt not sell except to buy more art -- and they cling to it, against all reason.  They are the enemies of active thought, and of judgment.  It's actually a little repulsive.