Tuesday, September 11, 2012

If it's not the tax exemptions, what is it?

Speaking of the Warhol Foundation, I thought it was interesting that Juila Halperin's ARTINFO story on last week's big news said that "thousands of works by the Pop icon will hit the market when the artist’s foundation deaccessions its entire collection through a combination of sales and donations" (my emphasis).

I don't mean in any way to criticize Julia, who was using it in its ordinary, dictionary sense ("to sell or otherwise dispose of an item in a collection"), but seeing the word "deaccession" there was, I think, instructive.  No one would suggest that what the Warhol Foundation is doing is "unethical" or "repulsive" or "Stalinist."  Nobody questions the right of artist-endowed foundations to sell work.  Nobody claims those works are held in the public trust, to be accessible to present and future generations.

But why?  Why are works owned by, say, the Warhol Museum held in the public trust, while works owned by, say, the Warhol Foundation are not?  I've mentioned before that Lee Rosenbaum is the one critic of deaccessioning who even attempts to justify the existing rules (the others just cluck their tongues and congratulate each other on how much more ethical and non-repulsive they are than everyone else).  She argues that the public "in essence" has paid for the works:  "The tax exemptions that are granted to nonprofit institutions and the tax deductions allowed to donors are the way by which the American public subsidizes museums and their acquisitions. The objects are [therefore] held in trust for us by these nonprofit institutions."  But that theory can't explain why sales by one kind of nonprofit institution (museums) should be viewed differently than sales by another kind of nonprofit institution (foundations).

This isn't just an academic debate.  There are real-world consequences.  The Detroit Institute of Art just convinced local residents to pay as much as $400 million in property taxes, "in a city so financially troubled that its leaders announced this year that it was at risk of running out of cash entirely."  It did so, in part, by telling voters it could not sell art to raise the money it needed because those works are "held in trust for the benefit of the public." 

If those works are in fact held in the public trust, I still haven't heard a good explanation of how they got there.