Tuesday, June 04, 2013

You'll never guess the AAMD's position on the possible Detroit sale (UPDATED)

Their letter to Governor Rick Snyder is here.  Let's take a look.  Here's what they have to say, with my comments interspersed in italics:

The Honorable Rick Snyder
Office of the Governor
P.O. Box 30013
Lansing, Michigan 48909

Dear Governor Snyder,

The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) is deeply concerned that the Emergency Financial Manager responsible for addressing the City of Detroit’s financial problems has questioned whether works of art could be sold from the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) to pay for the city’s operating expenses and debt obligations.

Duly noted.  There is much to be concerned about in Detroit.

Taking such a step would violate fundamental principles long recognized by the museum community (and embedded in many organizational policies including those of the AAMD) ...

Watch how many times, here and elsewhere, opponents of a sale fall back on this sort of argument.  "You can't sell because it would violate the standards of the museum community."  But the question is whether those standards make sense in the first place.  You can't appeal to the standards as the reason they should be respected.  It's as if the American Philosophical Association announced a standard that philosophy professors have to be the highest paid members of any university faculty, and then, when a school tried to pay their economics professors more, argued that they couldn't do so because "taking such a step would violate fundamental principles long recognized by the philosophical community (and embedded in many organizational policies)."

... as well as constitute a breach of trust with the generations of donors, both of art and funds for acquisitions, to the DIA.

This, at least, is an argument:  to sell art constitutes a breach of trust with donors.  The problem is, as we've seen, museums sell work all the time.  Why is it only sometimes a breach of trust?

Furthermore, selling art for operations of the City would constitute a material change from the financial statements presented for many years to the public and others by the DIA.

I've never understood what the force of this argument is supposed to be (so it's a change from the financial statements -- so what?).  And neither apparently does the AAMD because, after this one mention, it doesn't come up again in their letter.  (Peter Dean had some thoughts on this issue here.)

The acquisition, conservation, and exhibition of a museum’s collection are at the very heart of the museum’s service to its community. These activities represent the fundamental responsibility museums have for the stewardship of the cultural assets they hold in trust for present and future generations. For these reasons, and many more, it is a fundamental professional principle that if works of art are removed (deaccessioned) from the collections of art museums, the funds realized from their sale can only be utilized to enhance their collections and for no other purpose.

A couple of weird things here.  First, they talk about what museums "hold," which ignores the fact that, in this particular case, the museum doesn't "hold" anything: the collection is owned by the city.  So the real question is what is the fundamental responsibility cities have for the stewardship of the cultural assets they hold, and how do they balance that with other responsibilities they have (like to keep the lights on, or to pay the pensions it promised to its workers).  And second, notice the sleight of hand:  in the first sentence, we hear about "acquisition, conservation and exhibition" of the collection, but by the last sentence we're down to just acquisitions ("to enhance their collections").  Why can't the proceeds also be used for "exhibitions" (e.g., to build more and better exhibition space)?

The DIA’s collection is one of the most significant in the United States, and the museum has long been an outstanding example of the role an arts institution can play as an anchor for its community. The DIA was a founding member of AAMD, which was established in 1916, and has continued to be an active participant in the Association and a leader in the museum community.

Okay, but doesn't really address the pickle the city finds itself in.  (The AAMD is not really in the pickle-acknowledging business.  They're an advocate for a particular outcome, not a fair-minded observer balancing competing considerations.)

The sale of any part of the DIA’s collection to provide funds for any purpose other than the acquisition of art would place it firmly outside the standards of the American museum community. 

Appealing again to their own standards as an argument for why the standards should be followed.

The impact of such a decision would be felt in many, many quarters.

Not just many.  Many, many.

For example, fund raising for any state, county or city owned museum in Michigan could be impacted. Donors of objects to state, county or city owned museums would be very concerned about making any donation of their property for fear it would be sold anytime the government had a financial issue.

This is another of their standard arguments.  Donors will be very concerned about making donations if they know the work can be sold "anytime the government had a financial issue."  First of all, is that what Detroit has?  A "financial issue"?  They're bankrupt, for God's sake.  More importantly, I'm trying to remember who it was who said, just the other day, that museums want gifts to be unrestricted, so they can sell the work whenever they want.  Under the AAMD's own "standards," donors of objects know that their property can be sold, not anytime the government "had a financial issue," but anytime the museum sees a shinier object they'd like to acquire.  Why aren't donors "very concerned" about that?  Aren't they more likely to have their work sold for that than as a result of a government "financial issue"?

Such a sale—even against the will of its staff and leadership—would mean that the museum would not be operating in compliance with nationally accepted professional principles. If such a step were taken, it would violate the guidelines defined for the stewardship of collections in the AAMD’s Professional Practices in Art Museums.

Not in compliance.  Violate the guidelines.  Blah blah blah.  See above.

It would, moreover, represent a breach of the City of Detroit’s responsibility to maintain and protect an invaluable cultural resource that has been entrusted to its care for the benefit of the public.

This is really the core of it.  It is undoubtedly true that the City of Detroit has breached its responsibility to its citizens, in "many many" ways.  Yes, it has a responsibility to protect these invaluable resources, but it has other responsibilities too.  The AAMD doesn't provide any suggestion for how the City ought to balance those responsibilities, doesn't even acknowledge that those other responsibilities exist.  We know how valuable the museum is; we didn't need the AAMD to write a short, uninteresting letter to tell us.  But that's only the beginning of the conversation, not the end.

The AAMD strongly encourages everyone involved in the process of seeking solutions to Detroit’s fiscal challenges to preserve this irreplaceable part of the heritage of the city. It is a link to Detroit’s past and a fundamental key to Detroit’s future.

Timothy Rub
President, Association of Art Museum Directors

Well, I guess that settles it then.  You can expect to see news that the City's emergency manager (he was appointed to deal with the City's "financial issue") has dropped the idea any day now.

UPDATE:  A different take on the letter from Lee Rosenbaum.