Monday, January 29, 2018

"Museum industry standards on deaccessioning are inflexible and antiquated."

Nina Simon, executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art, has an interesting piece in the Berkshire Eagle arguing against "clinging to outdated deaccessioning policies" and suggesting that "instead of fighting to protect an imperfect and antiquated rule, we could create new rules — rules that put the public trust, not objects, first."

She's a little vague about exactly what those new rules would be, but they seem to include a version of the Ellis Rule:

"Other nonprofit industries have done this. Accredited American zoos, for example, have a strict policy that governs how animals move from one institution to another. If your zoo no longer plans to exhibit giraffes, those giraffes don't suddenly become fungible assets on the open market. They become tradable assets within a controlled market — with other accredited zoos, who will care for the giraffes as well as you once did."

Is the tide turning? I think the tide may be turning.

AG requests one-week extension of Berkshire Museum injunction

Reports the Berkshire Eagle, which adds that "because the museum does not oppose the request for an extension of the injunction, it is expected to be approved."

And a reminder from the Eagle about the AG's role in the dispute:

"In his Nov. 7 decision to deny the first request for an injunction against the art sales, Judge John A. Agostini questioned whether [AG] Healey's office was committed to its probe, citing what he saw as its 'initial indifference to this litigation.'

"The judge used 15 pages in his 25-page ruling to fault work by the Attorney General's Office on the case, suggesting it was 'dragged into' the case, exhibited 'faintheartedness' and didn't seem to think it would find grounds to support its objections to the sales.

"'In this litigation, the AGO is a reluctant warrior,' Agostini wrote."

Saturday, January 27, 2018

"But in the supercilious guild of museum elitists, deaccessioning items from a collection for any purpose other than acquiring more important items is a hanging offense."

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby writes about "the dogmatic world of the deaccession police, [where] the Berkshire [Museum] would be better off dead if the price of staying alive for decades to come is to sell some artworks today."

He singles out captain Christopher Knight, who "sneered that the museum’s board had 'lost their minds' for not realizing that they had a duty to go out of business":

"'Don’t sell the art. Do close the museum,' he commanded. 'Spend the next several years responsibly overseeing the dispersal of the collection.' Elizabeth McGraw, the museum’s chairman, tells me people have said the same thing to her face. A Berkshire socialite confronted her at a reception: 'I think the museum should close, and the art should stay in the public.'

"But does anyone believe that culture and the arts in Pittsfield will be better off if the Berkshire Museum agreed to commit a genteel suicide and let its treasures be parceled out to other institutions? When the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, facing a similar financial crisis, closed its doors in 2016, its collections were dispersed to venues in North Carolina, upstate New York, and Washington, D.C. Almost nothing remained in the Massachusetts community .... Is that really what the condescending pooh-bahs of museum propriety wish for Pittsfield — not the loss of 40 items, but of all 40,000?"

And he has this to say about the Massachusetts AG:

"Attorney General Maura Healey, whose office oversees nonprofits and charities, was notified of the museum’s deaccessioning plans in June, weeks before it was announced publicly. She rightly raised no objection. Not until four months later, did Healey’s office act. ... [I]t’s hard to escape the conclusion that Healey’s investigation became a quest to find something, anything, to justify her belated opposition to the Berkshire’s plan. It isn’t only museum partisans who say so. Ruling on the initial request for an injunction in November, Superior Court Judge John Agostini pronounced it 'bewildering' that Healey would try to stop the sale when her office 'has uncovered no evidence of bad faith, no conflict of interest, [and] no breach of loyalty.'"

He concludes:

"The injunction expires Jan. 29. What happens next is anyone’s guess. But this much is clear: Each additional delay brings the Berkshire’s demise closer. Nothing is going to hurt Norman Rockwell’s paintings. But the museum he loved enough to give them to is fighting for its life, and time is running out."

Monday, January 22, 2018

Missing the Forest

San Francisco Chronicle art critic Charles Desmarais has a rebuttal to Michael O'Hare's recent piece on deaccessioning, which I discussed here.  It begins:

"Here’s an idea: Let’s make admission free to certain national parks. We’ll just sell off other parks, perhaps the ones with the lowest attendance, and use the proceeds to fund the popular spots for a while."

But isn't deaccessioning more like selling some of the trees within the park to pay for things like free admission, better upkeep and conservation, more staff, more and better public programs, etc.?

When a museum sells some artwork, it doesn't cease to exist as a museum.  It just has a few less trees than it did before.

And isn't it worth noting that parks already sell trees all the time and nobody seems to care (don't be so touchy about it), so long as they use the proceeds to buy other, different trees?

Desmarais includes a concession that "a certain amount of prudent trimming can make sense." But he doesn't explain why the proceeds from such trimming can only be used to buy more trees and not for other valuable purposes (such as free admission).

Friday, January 19, 2018

BREAKING NEWS: The Ellis Rule Is Back

Brought back by the eponym himself.

The recent run of deaccessioning sanity continues.  Glenn Lowry, Michael O'Hare, Tim Schneider, and now Adrian Ellis line up against the tomato throwers.  Is the tide finally turning?

Saturday, January 13, 2018

"This is really bad for U.S. collectors"

The NYT Wealth Matters column this week:  How the Tax Code Rewrite Favors Real Estate Over Art.

It's about the elimination of 1031 exchanges for art in the new tax law, mentioned earlier here.

Friday, January 12, 2018

"This happens from time to time when a minor museum can’t fix the roof or keep the heat on, and the moral outrage machine goes into high gear, wailing that the sold works will be 'lost' to humanity forever!"

A very good day for sanity in the deaccessioning debate.

First, MoMA's Glenn Lowry joined me -- and Felix Salmon -- in the anti-anti-deaccessioning crowd.

And now, this great piece by Berkeley's Michael O'Hare in the San Francisco Chronicle. He starts off talking about the hysteria around the proposed Berkshire Museum sale, and says:

"Let’s get a grip. Selling major works to save a museum, or revise its overall mission, is rare, and not a matter of art getting 'lost'; they go to museums that want to show them, or to wealthy collectors who take good care of them, show them privately and almost always bequeath or give them — to museums."

He then pivots to another issue that's in the air these days -- museums charging admission fees:

"I have estimated ... the monetary value of the collection of one of my favorite museums, the Art Institute of Chicago: It’s about $35 billion. Absurd to think the institute would just sell the collection, or sell any of its best works, but what about all that stuff in the basement that has no prospect of ever being displayed? Well, if the institute sold 1 percent off the bottom ... the institute could endow free admission forever (currently general admission is $25; $20 for Chicago residents)."  (Along these lines:  9 Works the Met Should Sell Right Now to Avoid Charging Tourists Forever.)

Most museums, he points out, "have warehouses of art that are not creating any cultural value now and could be sold, especially to regional museums and collectors who would show it. They could free up funds for more space to show what they have, and more curators and educators to amplify the value of the visitors’ experience."  Or, as Lowry put it, "more programs that engage more people across a broader platform."

I know, really scandalous, repulsive, unethical stuff, right?

For more by O'Hare, see here, here (where he pointed out that "the Met has a collection worth at least $60 billion, thousands and thousands of objects almost none of which (by object count or square feet of picture) is ever shown or ever will be.  ... Selling just two percent ..., for example, could endow free admission forever"), here, here, and here.

Glenn Lowry Just Joined My Deaccessioning Hall of Fame

From an interview with Charlotte Burns:

"Charlotte Burns: Do you find that the current de-accession policies need adapting?

"Glenn Lowry: Well, I have very strong opinions about de-accessioning, and I don’t pretend for a moment to be aligned with many of my colleagues. I don’t believe you should de-accession to fund operating costs. I think that is a categoric mistake.

"But I do believe that one should de-accession rigorously in order to either acquire more important works of art or build endowments to support programming. Because for me, in the end, it’s all about being sufficiently well-capitalized to program intelligently and to have as few works of art in storage as possible. It doesn’t benefit anyone when there are millions of works of art that are languishing in storage. A— there’s a huge capital cost to that that has a drag on operations. But more importantly, we would be far better off, in my opinion, allowing others to have those works of art that might enjoy them, but even more importantly, converting that to endowed funds that could support public programs, exhibitions, publications.

"So, I have no issue with the anxiety about selling works of art to support daily operations. That’s not an intelligent use of those funds. But I do think we need to re-examine fundamentally how we improve the quality of what we do and what the role of collections are in that context.

"I’m an outlier in that respect. I’ve come to terms with the fact that many of my colleagues see it differently. But I also think I’m right that we are woefully under-capitalized, and there isn’t a single museum in this country—and I put The Museum of Modern Art in that—that is doing a great job of programming, because we don’t have the resources to do that. What we should be doing should be ten times what we’re currently doing.

"Charlotte Burns: What do you think you should be doing?

"Glenn Lowry: More programs that engage more people across a broader platform.

"Charlotte Burns: Right."



Let me re-phrase that:  Wow.

It sure is refreshing to stumble across a little sanity in the deaccessioning debate.

One thing I think Lowry may be wrong about is that he's probably not as much of an outlier as he thinks. I've got at least a half dozen museum directors in my hall of fame (including, most recently, MASS MoCA's Joe Thompson), and I bet if you spoke to people privately, away from the watchful eye of the Deaccession Police and their informants, you'd find most of them would be in complete agreement with the position he lays out here.

"The $10 million offer was to have expired Jan. 1, but the museum board has voted to extend it indefinitely."

If you have information that would lead to the recovery of the stolen Gardner works, and didn't get around to disclosing it by the end of the year, you're in luck.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

"What seems to be lost in this discussion is due consideration of the specious assumption at its core: That free admission actually engages low income audiences."

Colleen Dilenschneider:  "Data indicate that free admission has little to no correlation with how well museums – including the Met – welcome or satisfy income-qualified audiences."

In other Met-admission related news today, Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry and History Museum -- both of which which sit on parkland -- announced admission fee increases. "The admission-fee hikes were approved Wednesday by the Chicago Park District Board to help offset increased costs in building maintenance and operations for both museums," and the Board's Commissioner noted: "If you look at all the other forms of entertainment, whether it’s professional teams or movie theaters or concerts, this ticket-price increase pales compared to what’s happened in the truly private sector."

"Why Mickey Mouse’s 1998 copyright extension probably won’t happen again"

Copyrights from the 1920s will start expiring next year if Congress doesn’t act.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

"No one likes to sell art. But if there is a higher purpose to better serve the students that we serve, we will."

Philadelphia Magazine: La Salle’s President Defends Her Controversial Plan to Auction Artwork.

What makes her think better serving her students is more important than the "ethical" guidelines of the museum trade organizations? Such a repulsive, deplorable thing for a college president to do -- put the interests of the students first.

Don't worry, the art world is "pushing back" against this crime.

"What is it about art that it shouldn’t be paid for?" (UPDATED 2X)

That's a question attributed to former Met Director Philippe de Montebello, in this Observer piece by Daniel Grant on the Met's new admission policy.

Jillian Steinhauer is at arguing against the change, and at least tries to make the case that "the Met isn't quite like" all the other museums that charge for admission without anyone batting an eye. She mentions two differences. First, that the Met is "the largest art museum in the country." But I don't see what follows from that. Should the largest dance company in the country not charge for tickets?  And where does this "largest must be free" rule come from?  Why not "the top three must be free"?  Or the top 10?

Second, she says "the Met is a public institution in many senses of the word." One sense she mentions is that "New York City owns its main building on Fifth Avenue and the land that building sits on in Central Park." But to the extent that matters, isn't it adequately dealt with by the fact that the museum remains free for New York City residents?

And the Philadelphia Inquirer runs an opinion piece headed "Museums should be free to everyone, regardless of where they live or how much they earn." That's a position I can at least understand. (I may not be convinced by it, but I can understand it.) What I don't understand is the position that this museum, alone among all the others, should be free.

UPDATE:  9 Works the Met Should Sell Right Now to Avoid Charging Tourists Forever.

UPDATE 2:  More Than 200 U.S. Art Museums by Admission Price. (Spoiler alert: the great majority are not free.)

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Breaking News: Museums Charge Admission Fees (UPDATED)

Who knew?!

Just a couple of quick notes on the uproar over the Met announcing that it's going to start doing what every other museum already does (except less so -- their admission fee will only apply to out-of-state visitors).

1.  First, the argument that, as Roberta Smith put it in the Times, "we shouldn't have to pay to see art in museums whose nonprofit status is supported by our taxes" obviously applies with equal force to all museums, not just the Met.  So where are the protests against MoMA, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, etc. etc.?

2.  A similar claim sometimes pops up in the deaccessioning debate, but nonprofit status simply doesn't do the work its meant to do in arguments like that.  Most theater companies and dance companies have nonprofit status.  Should their performances be free?  Private schools have nonprofit status.  Is it improper for them to charge tuition?  Hospitals have nonprofit status.  And on and on.  There may be good arguments against the Met's decision here, but its nonprofit status is not one of them.

The NYT editorial board points out that the "the new system is in line with prices charged at some other institutions, like the Museum of Modern Art" and says the new policy "is as understandable as it is regrettable."

The Art Market Monitor is not impressed with Smith's (and Holland Cotter's) piece (he calls it "a contradictory set of emotionally-driven politically-naive opinions").

UPDATE:  Brian Frye points out (correctly, I think) that there is a kind of "endowment effect" in play here.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Here We Go Again

La Salle University in Philadelphia is planning to sell some art, hoping to raise "as much as $7 million, or more, which would be used to 'to help fund teaching and learning initiatives in its new strategic plan.'"

The debate (if you can call it that) will follow its usual form.

The Deaccession Police will cite the guidelines of the various museum organizations as if they were the word of God.

The university will point out in response that it is a university not a museum and (as a school official tells Lee Rosenbaum here) its "Board of Trustees has fiduciary responsibility for the University, and their decisions supersede those of the ... the guidelines established by museum trade associations."

The Deaccession Police will respond with their usual tactic of throwing rotten tomatoes and saying how dare you? and well, I never a lot.  They will compete with one another to see who can seem the most devastated by the trimming of a collection that, until five minutes ago, they didn't know existed.

For a more rational perspective, I recommend the law review article mentioned here.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

"5 Lawsuits That Could Reshape the Art World in 2018" (UPDATED)

From Isaac Kaplan at Artsy.  The list includes the Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court case, Graham v. Prince, the Berkshire Museum lawsuits, the Guelph Treasure case, and the long-running Von Saher v. Norton Simon Museum.

UPDATE:  Brian Frye tweets:  "Interesting list. But I’m a little skeptical that Masterpiece Bakeshop will have much effect on the artworld, no matter how it is decided."  Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento responds:  "Agree on Masterpiece, but SCOTUS may do what art historians and critics do not--opine on what is and isn't art and expression. I hope."