Sunday, October 18, 2015

"There’s a strong feeling that as board members we are responsible for protecting the club and ensuring its success in the future. The most important way to do that was through a sale."

This is a couple weeks old, but I didn't want to let it pass without mention.  The Washington Post reports that "the National Press Club and its affiliated journalism institute will sell a Norman Rockwell painting the artist gave them more than 50 years ago and bank the estimated $10- to $15-million windfall to support future programs."

You probably haven't heard anything about this, and with good reason.  This is, and ought to be, utterly noncontroversial.  As the Press Club's President says, the sale will allow them "to expand our mission and do even more for the profession of journalism and press freedom."

Now, if you're a member of the Deaccession Police, or even just a sympathizer, you may be saying:  "Who cares?  What's your point?  The National Press Club is not a museum?  What do they have to do with anything?"

The answer is that the way this connects to the general deaccessioning debate is that it shows that non-profit status alone (and the tax benefits that come with it) is not enough to give rise to a public trust.  (I don't know what kind of entity the National Press Club is exactly, but I believe "its affiliated journalism institute" is a 501(c)(3).)  One of the questions I've asked around here (repeatedly) is how do museums come to hold their work in the public trust?  Literally, how does it happen?  One answer that's sometimes given is that, as a result of their non-profit status, "we" have a claim on the works.  But the Press Club example shows that isn't right.  Non-profit status alone doesn't get you there.

I submit to you that there are lots of other institutions -- colleges and universities chief among them -- who are more like the Press Club than museums:  they have larger missions to serve, and if they conclude that selling a work of art will further that larger mission, they should be free to do so.

I would also submit to you that museums are more like the Press Club than what the Deaccession Police imagine museums to be.  They too have larger missions, and if the sale of work is in furtherance of that mission, why be so touchy about it?