Wednesday, June 11, 2014

There's The Rub

Former AAMD president Timothy Rub has a piece in the Wall Street Journal today on the Delaware Art Museum deaccessioning.

This follows a piece he had a couple of months ago in the Delaware News Journal.  Back then, it was a "difficult -- indeed, agonizing -- decision."  Now things seems to have gotten less difficult and agonizing:  the new piece is headlined "A Dereliction of Duty" and expresses no doubt that the "decision was ill considered."

But the big news is that it's "not a matter, as is often claimed, of protecting the public trust."  That's good to know; I will keep that in mind for the future.  But before we move on, let me just ask:  who often claimed it was a matter of protecting the public trust?  Search this blog and you will find dozens of instances of the AAMD and other members of the deaccession police often claiming that it's a matter of protecting the public trust.  (A few are collected here.)  I'll be thrilled for them to drop this talking point, but let's at least be honest about the history.  We've always been at war with Eastasia.

So if it's not a matter of protecting the public trust, what is it a matter of?

The answer is ... common sense.  It's a matter of common sense.  Obviously it's okay for museums to sell work and use the proceeds to buy art but not okay to sell the same work and use the proceeds for any other purpose.  That's just simple common sense.

Actually, here's the whole answer:  "it's about common sense.  You don't cut out the heart to cure the patient; and yet this was the remedy chosen by Delaware's trustees to restore their institution to good health."  They "seem not to have understood their broader responsibility to care for all of the museum's assets -- most significantly, its collection."

Wow.  Where to begin with this?

First of all, the heart/patient analogy doesn't work at all.  Here's the thing about cutting out a patient's heart: if you do so, he will die.  The Delaware Art Museum is not going to die because it has 12,498 works in its collection instead of 12,500. The Detroit Institute would not die if it had 5% fewer works than it now has.  It may not be the same, it may even be significantly diminished, but one thing it will not be is a patient with his heart cut out.

In fact, doesn't it make more sense to see the trustees as having precisely understood their broader responsibility to care for the museum's assets?  Isn't that exactly what they take themselves to be doing with this sale? Here's what the museum's CEO had to say when the decision was announced:

"After detailed analysis, heavy scrutiny and the exhaustion of every reasonable alternative to relieve our bond debt, the Trustees had two agonizing choices in front of them -- to either sell works of art, or to close our doors."

Now, you may disagree with the choice they made, but does that sound to you like a board that has not understood its broader responsibility to care for the totality of the museum's assets?

There's more to discuss in the piece, but this post has gone on long enough already, so I'll stop here for now. I'm just amazed that these are the best arguments they can muster for a piece like this.  He should have at least mentioned the coin of the realm.  That's just simple common sense.