Saturday, May 16, 2015

On what can appear to the public to be confusing or contradictory rules concerning deaccessioning

So, as mentioned in the Mark Stryker article I linked to in the update to this post yesterday, the Detroit Institute has apparently walked back the claim that it plans to sell a Van Gogh.  But the larger point remains: the D.I.A. will, at some point, resume the ordinary, common, nothing-touchy-about, totally-non-controversial-within-the-museum-world practice of routinely selling works from the collection and using the proceeds to buy different art.

The question is:  is that consistent with what they told the world during the bankruptcy proceeding, in their (highly successful) campaign to keep the art from the reach of creditors?

In fairness to museum director Graham Beal, as he pointed out to Nicholas O'Donnell earlier this week, he was clear in his public statements that he was not arguing for a categorical ban on all sales; his position was just that the museum would not breach "the most fundamental tenet of the art museum world: that art in the collection can only be sold to acquire more (and better) art."

On the other hand, there were other statements, at least as filtered through the media, where the message was more muddled.  Here, for example, is the New York Times reporting that "[t]he museum’s director, Graham W. J. Beal, has said that any sale of art will most likely lead to the museum’s dissolution."  Now, presumably he meant any sale of art other than those where the proceeds are used to buy other art, but you can understand how some people might have missed that.  And here is another example from the Times of "museum officials" warning "if any pieces are sold the museum will no longer be able to attract donors and will immediately lose a crucial stream of tax revenue voted in last year by three Michigan counties."  In the next paragraph, Beal himself is quoted as saying "such a loss of operating revenue and donations...would almost certainly lead to what he called a 'nonprofit controlled liquidation' of the museum."  Now again, what those museum officials must have meant is that if any pieces are sold and the proceeds are not used to buy art, the museum will no longer be able to attract donors etc., almost certainly leading to a nonprofit controlled liquidation, but you can forgive someone for not catching that nuance.

But let's leave that to the side and grant that Beal and other opponents of sale during the bankruptcy were perfectly consistent:  they never said that all sales were prohibited; they simply said that sales other than to buy more art were prohibited.

The larger issue, though (and I've been banging on this for years here), is that the people who hold that view fail to see that the same reasons they give for why art can't be sold for non-art buying purposes apply with equal force to sales to buy more art.

You say art can't be sold to pay operating expenses because it's held in the public trust for future generations?

Well, that applies to works sold to buy more art too.  Isn't this Van Gogh held in the public trust for future generations?

You say art can't be sold because it will discourage people from donating art in the future?

Well, that applies to works sold to buy more art too.  What's the basis for the assumption that donors don't mind it when you sell off the art they donated as long as you use the sales proceeds to buy art (different art, art that you are implicitly declaring you like better than the art they gave you)?

What defenders of the Beal view of deaccessioning are unable to do is point to a reason why sales for non-art buying purposes are wrong that does not also apply to sales for art-buying purposes.  At least I've never seen one.

It's kind of like if I called you up this morning and asked if you wanted to play tennis, and you replied no and, when I asked why, you said "Because it's the weekend."  Then, tomorrow, I happen to pass by the tennis courts and see you playing with someone else and say, "Wait a minute, I thought you don't play on the weekends?"  And you respond:  "No, Sundays are okay."

Graham Beal doesn't want works to be sold for operating expenses, or to pay creditors, or to keep from going out of business, because it's the weekend.  But he's fine with selling that Van Gogh on Sunday.

No wonder "some observers" are critical of "what can appear to the public to be confusing or contradictory rules concerning deaccessioning and the supposedly sacrosanct notion of holding work in the public trust."