Monday, August 18, 2014

Tell me again about the public trust (selections from The Art Institute of Chicago’s renowned photo collection edition)

Speaking of the inviolable principle that museums hold their works for future generations and they therefore must never be sold, even should the heavens fall, Phillips is about to sell 117 works from the Art Institute of Chicago's photo collection.

One.  Hundred.  Seventeen.

How can that be?

Weren't those 117 objects that, having fallen under the aegis of a museum, were held in the public trust, to be accessible to present and future generations?

Isn't this 117 opportunities -- 117!! -- for potential donors to say "Why should I give this to you? What guarantee do I have that you're not going to sell this tomorrow?"

How can this be okay -- not even worthy of a mention in the press aside from the auction house's own press release -- but it's not okay for the Corcoran to sell work in order to keep from disappearing?

It can't be a matter of the public trust -- or else both sales would be wrong.  And it can't be a concern about future donors -- or else, again, both sales would be wrong.

So what is it (setting aside as possible answers "common sense" and "the coin of the realm")?  It has to be a value judgment that adding a few more works to the Art Institute's already enormous collection is more important than keeping the Corcoran (or the National Academy, or Fisk University, etc.) in existence.

But what sense does that make?