Wednesday, March 21, 2018

"Is there an ethical case against deaccessioning by museums?"

Asks Michael Rushton on Twitter, after succintly capturing the nature of most anti-deaccessioning arguments:

"These arguments seem to me to beg the question: if one assumes from the outset that deaccessioning is unethical and unprofessional, then of course it's all dire and urgent. But I've yet to see a coherent argument about *why* an institution selling some assets is unethical. It certainly might be the case that the sales of assets are a result of poor management and board oversight, but that's just bad management and oversight, and doesn't make every case of asset sales a moral failure."

I think that's exactly right:  the Deaccession Police merely assume (why? because it violates the self-invented rules of a couple of museum guilds) that the practice is unethical, and all the hysteria simply follows from that assumption.

Rushton goes on to ask for "suggestions for an article that strongly presents a moral case against deaccessioning," and only Lee Rosenbaum (who so far as I can tell is the only member of the Deaccession Police at all willing to engage with critics) takes up the challenge, pointing him to her 2005 New York Times piece on the subject.

Rushton takes it apart here.

Rosenbaum's core argument is the following:

"Museums’ permanent collections belong to all of us. The public has, in most instances, paid for these works through the tax deductions given to private donors. And those donors bestow such works on the public expecting them to be valued for their aesthetic, not financial worth. If a museum doesn’t regard a particular gift as worthy of display or study, it shouldn’t accept the gift in the first place."

Rushton responds:

"There’s a lot in this paragraph; let’s break it down:

"'Museums’ permanent collections belong to all of us' is not true in any meaningful sense. Nonprofit museums are independent entities, and I have no claim on their works, any more than I have claims on the assets of any other organization. It is sentiment, but nothing more than that.

"That there were tax deductions to the donors does not change matters. All donations, cash or in kind, to registered nonprofits receive a tax deduction, but that doesn’t mean the organization surrenders the control of its assets to 'all of us.' The tax policy in place with respect to charitable donations is designed to encourage donations to charity, but does not imply any general public say in the management of assets.

"Do donors expect works to be valued for their aesthetic, not financial worth? Sometimes, maybe. A couple of years ago I was moving house, and ended up donating a couple of van-loads worth of books to my school library and local public library. They might put some on the shelf, and they might sell some where they think they could use the money to acquire books better suited to the library’s purpose. I don’t care – I just want to help out my library, and they can use my donation as it best benefits the library mission. I don’t see a moral difference between a gift of $500,000 cash to a museum and the gift of a work of art that doesn’t really fit its mission or collection but could yield $500,000 at sale that could be used on other purchases that would fit its mission. A donor could say 'I insist that you never sell this work, for any reason', I suppose. But I would want to ask that donor: Why?

"And as to the final point: my impression in most deaccessioning cases is not that a gift was accepted that the museum didn’t find worthy, but rather that it was once worthy but that circumstances have changed. Must any work accepted be held in perpetuity?

"And so in the end my ask for an article that gives a persuasive moral case that 'certain kinds of deaccessioning is unethical' has not been met. I don’t see it in the Berkshire case she is now covering."

I've made similar arguments in the past, including that Rosenbaum's argument can't possibly support opposition to sales between museums:

"Put aside the question whether this ownership principle applies to all non-profits, or just to museums (do 'we' own everything in every school and hospital and church and other non-profit by virtue of the tax deductions that help support them?), and go along with the assumption that everything every museum owns is 'our stuff.' Suppose Museum A has two paintings and has $100 in the bank (it's a very small museum). And suppose Museum B has one painting and $200 in the bank. So 'we,' 'the public,' 'Americans,' have three paintings (Museum A's two plus Museum B's one) and $300 ($100 from Museum A and $200 from Museum B). That's our stuff. Now Museum A sells one of its paintings to Museum B for $100. That leaves Museum A with one painting and now $200 in the bank, and Museum B now with two paintings but just $100 in the bank. What do 'we' have now? Three paintings and $300. Just as before. It's like moving money from one of my bank accounts (called, say, the 'National Academy Account') to another of my accounts (called, say, the 'Crystal Bridges Account'). I just don't see how 'Americans' are harmed when a work moves from one of their museums to another."

And here:

"It is sometimes suggested that this is a function of the favorable tax treatment museums receive: because museums are exempt from property and income taxes, and donors get tax deductions for contributing to them, the 'public' therefore is the true owner of the art. I've never really understood that argument. There are lots of other entities that get the same tax benefits -- churches. private schools and universities, hospitals, etc. Does the public own the MRI machines at the hospital? If a university decides to shut down the sociology department, should we step in and say, 'Hey, wait a minute. That department was held in trust for us. You can't just get rid of it like that'? Does every asset ostensibly held by every non-profit really belong to us? And if not, what makes art different? How does it come to be 'held in trust' when other, similarly-owned assets are not?"

And one more:

"Note that this argument would apply not just to the art, but to all the other assets of the museum -- computers, chairs, and holiday decorations. More importantly, it's just not the case that being granted nonprofit status means you agree your 'assets are public.' Think of every church, hospital, private school, etc. Their assets do not 'belong' to the public."

In the comments to Rushton's piece, Gail Obenreder points out that:

"Not every work of art in a museum has been acquired in the same manner. Some, certainly, were donated to be cared for and (probably periodically) displayed. Those may or may not have been given with the legal caveat to be a permanent part of the collection; many aren’t. ... And some are purchased by museums. These purchases may increase in value, perhaps greatly. And in any other type of organization (profit or non-) making a smart purchase and then monetizing that asset when it accrues more value would be lauded."