Thursday, April 16, 2020

So you mean it's not so repulsive after all? (UPDATED 4X)

A couple days ago I quoted Allan Schwartzman as saying ""I can’t imagine that the museum associations will not be obliged to rethink the core requirements of economic survival in relation to some of the assets that they own in their collections."

I added:

"Think of it this way. The Guggenheim (to take one example among many) just announced that it is furloughing 92 employees and reducing pay for another 85. If that could have been avoided by selling one work from its collection, would you do it? And if your answer is no, would you say an opposing view is repulsive?"

Well, now comes news that "the field’s leading professional organization has adopted temporary measures aimed at giving them greater flexibility in how they manage their finances. The Association of Art Museum Directors ... said on Thursday that, for the next two years, it will not censure or sanction museums that engage in some activities typically prohibited by its policies, including using income from restricted funds for general operating expenses."

This is a big deal and strikes me as obviously correct. (Though in typical fashion "the resolutions do not change AAMD’s actual governing standards. They merely lift the possibility of sanctions through April 10, 2022" -- so it's still technically repulsive but there will be no penalty for the repulsiveness, at least for the next two years.) It never made any sense to say there were no possible circumstances in which selling art to generate operating funds could be justified. The pandemic is a very obvious example of such a circumstance, but clearly not the only one. The right approach should always be "to weigh the actual costs and actual benefits and try to determine whether, on balance, all things considered, the [proposed] sale is a good idea."

UPDATE: Some other reactions to the news.

Deaccessioning Hall of Fame Scholar-in-Residence Brian Frye: "OMGOMGOMG. The AAMD is apparently suspending its deaccessioning policies for the next 2 years. So, selling art for capital expenses is still, repulsive, but we'll hold our nose?"

Mark Gold (who as far back as 2010 was asking: "Why not make it ethical for a museum to weigh priorities and make difficult choices without fear of condemnation and ostracism?"): "So the survival of a museum is relevant to the applicability of "ethical rules" of museum associations?  Museums with existential threats have been saying that for years.  Nice to finally have broader recognition of that, but sorry it took a pandemic. ... It's about time that the survival of museums and the support of their staffs get the priority they deserve."

Lee Rosenbaum understands the consequences of the move -- "How will AAMD’s watchdogs ever again be able to censure or sanction individual museums (as happened with the National Academy in New York and the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA) if they resort to monetizing their art in an attempt to secure their economic futures in future years, after the national emergency has passed?" -- but even she is on board: "For now, I’ll grudgingly concede that AAMD’s current action is a justifiable emergency rescue operation for the entire field, not merely an easy fix for a few poorly managed institutions."

And finally, Jonathan T.D. Neil says the changes actually don't go far enough because they only allow the use of interest (not principal) from acquisition funds: "Using interest rather than principal isn't going to cut it. Museums directors should be set free to sell works and then to use the entirety of that income to support their employees. That's a resolution that would be easy to commit to. ... Prioritizing assets (yes, they are assets) over people in extreme circumstances such as this (22m unemployed) is getting the value system wrong. If you are committed to your audiences, your publics, and to sustainability, it's the right thing to do."

UPDATE 2: Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento: "My more controversial side says that this whole deaccesioning in the time of the pandemic is really just hogwash. I mean, seriously, who cares what the AAMD thinks? At this point art institutions (museums, etc.) are so entrenched in the art stock market–which is to say, commercial viability–that the notion of a 'public good' has become nothing but academic and journalistic fodder."

UPDATE 3: Related: "This crisis has exposed the fragility of how museums do business. Very few have the cash reserves needed to continue operating."

UPDATE 4: Also related: "Still, the ability of arts organizations to weather this storm, while backstopped by state and philanthropic money, is, at best, tenuous. Once we get past the current crisis, arts organizations may need to rethink their funding models."