Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Confidence Game

I mentioned this in passing the other day in discussing the Detroit situation, but I thought I'd flesh it out a little bit here.

One of the two main arguments of the anti-deaccessioning zealots is that, if museums are allowed to sell work to pay operating expenses (or, for that matter, to avoid a severe reduction of museum services and programs), "donor confidence will be shaken" -- donors will say, "Why should I give this to you? What guarantee do I have that you're not going to sell this tomorrow?"  The other primary argument they make is the ridiculous "held in trust" argument -- ridiculous because museums sell work like it's going out of style.

The donor-confidence argument never made much sense to me either -- for one thing, no one ever explains why the endless number of sales where the proceeds are used to buy more art don't shake donor confidence -- but leave that to the side for a moment.

Museums can acquire work in two ways. It can be donated. Or they can buy it.

What if a museum simply announced:  We will never sell a work that was donated to us.  So all you donors and potential donors out there can feel completely confident that we will never sell a work if you donate it to us.  (More confident, in fact, than under the current regime where, remember, museums can sell donated work so long as they use, or at least earmark, the sales proceeds for future acquisitions.)  This museum will have the most confident, motivated set of donors on the planet.

But ... in return, this museum announces that it will consider itself free to sell other, non-donated work, and use the sales proceeds for anything it wants, including avoiding the elimination of school tours, public programs and community outreach.

The question is:  would that be repulsive?

If so, why?