Friday, October 17, 2014

A Deaccessioning Puzzle

Reading about Mitch Rales's Glenstone collection in Carol Vogel's column today got me thinking about how museums come to be bound by the "ethical" rules regarding deaccessioning.  I mean in the most literal sense:  how does it happen?

Imagine a wealthy collector -- Rales, Stevie Cohen, somebody like that -- decides to buy a building in Chelsea and open his collection up to public view.  I don't think anyone would say that, having done so, he forfeits his right to sell works from his collection.  It's his property.  If he wants to sell his Film Stills, he can sell his Film Stills.  And I think we would all also agree that, if he does so, he should be able to use the sales proceeds however he wants.  He can use them to buy more art, or help pay for the building he's using to make his amazing collection available to all of us, or to pay the curators and guards he's employing to further enhance our experience.  Since we are lovers of art, we may think the best thing he can do with the sales proceeds is plow them into buying more art, but certainly he's under no ethical or other obligation to do so.  Again, it's his property, he's doing us a great favor by sharing it with us, he can do anything he wants with the money, including using it to put his kids through college.  Right?

Next, imagine the same scenario except now the collector decides to take the formal legal step of becoming a "museum."   It's still his collection, he's still doing us the amazing favor of giving us access to it.  Has it now become "unethical" (repulsive etc.) to use sales proceeds for anything but the purchase of more art?  How did that happen?  Really:  how?

One answer some might be tempted to give is that becoming a museum carries with it certain tax benefits, which in turn brings the ethics rules into play.  But that seems odd to me.  I can understand the argument that those tax benefits carry with them certain obligations -- the museum must be generally open to the public, everything it does must be for the public benefit (so using sales proceeds to pay for the founder's kids to go to college would no longer be possible), and so on.  But how do you get from there to a commitment to the deaccesioning-to-buy-more-art-good, deaccessioning-for-any-other-reason-bad museum "ethics" rules.  Those rules are the rules of a private organization (the AAMD) that seems to think they make sense for some reason.  They don't flow naturally from the fact that an institution is tax-exempt.  (Tax-exempt artist foundations like the Warhol Foundation, for example, sell work and use the proceeds to fund their operations all the time, and no one thinks there's anything wrong with that, nor should they.)  So how is it that calling yourself a museum automatically brings them into play?  I've never seen a good answer to that question.