Sunday, February 28, 2021

András Szántó on Deaccessioning

Another interesting deaccession-related interview today.

I loved this bit:

"The debates have a kind of theological tint to them. There's a great deal of passion and conviction and categorical statements around issues which by their nature are highly complex. I think they also reflect a certain lack of faith in institutions to make the right judgments .... I also think the issue is particular to each museum. Some museums have been collecting 150 years, others have not. I agree with those who worry about a slippery slope, but I don't believe that you can take a categorical position against it. It's like a medical procedure—there are so many variables that come into play."

I think that's basically the right approach. Drop the dogmatism. Acknowledge the complexity. Have faith in our institutions. Take each case individually. Avoid taking a categorical position. Consider all the variables.

Why is that so hard?

He also gives the following hypothetical example of how an institution "could unlock value from an existing collection":

"Institution A is an impoverished institution with a stellar collection. Institution B is a very wealthy and well endowed institution with a very weak collection. Could Institution A and B agree to a co-ownership agreement where the wealthy institution provides the funding, and the other institution provides access to the masterpiece? Would that be controversial?"

I mentioned a similar hypothetical here, and spoiler alert: Yes, that would be controversial, because that would be seen as "monetizing" the collection and monetizing the collection is (categorically) wrong, on theological grounds.

And last, in response to "the argument against deaccessioning that's been made by some critics, namely that the trustees of the museums in question should step up and dip into their pockets" (or as some say, "it's on their fat asses") he says, first, "it's very interesting to me as a European that a lot of the most progressive voices are looking to wealthy people to solve problems," and second, that part of the problem is that it's no longer the case, as it once was, that "the apex of what it meant to be a philanthropist was that you were the chairman of the board at the local museum," and one way to deal with that problem is that if "the museum opens up, becomes a vital community resource, addresses all kinds of social needs for a much wider range of people and contributes in ways small and large to the health of our society" -- as opposed, we might say, to just hoarding art -- "I think it will be easier to imagine people with this great capacity getting behind museums."

"Totaling $1.5 million, the amount is a far cry from the $65 million the museum anticipated it would raise for its so-called 'Endowment for the Future' through deaccessioning."

The Baltimore Museum of Art announced three gifts to help fund the diversity and equity initiatives it initially had planned to support through deaccessioning but changed course in the face of a storm of criticism.

Brian Boucher's artnet story describing the gifts also includes a fascinating interview with BMA director Christopher Bedford, which includes these highlights:

  • Boucher says that "some are calling on boards to step up yet further. They’re asking, why should museums have to sell art when they have boards to support them?" (Or as one critic put it, "it's on their fat asses.") Bedford's answer: "From an outsider’s perspective, the call for apparently extraordinarily wealthy board members to 'step up' seems logical. But those board members have been, are, and continue to step up—it [still] may not be adequate to keep the museum solvent and meet the mission."
  • Getting to the core of it, Bedford say: "Critics of institutions question, 'Why should we sell art?' My question would be quite simply, 'Why should we not?' . . . Our fundamental role is not to hoard riches, but to interpret those objects in order to provide cultural enrichment. Institutions are being called on to change our DNA, and there is nothing more important to our DNA than our collections. If the majority of institutions in this country are white-centered, which they are, then it stands to reason that the collection itself is emblematic of that bias. Why shouldn’t we be able to, in some measured and controlled fashion, access those resources to drive vision and to properly diversify and compensate staff and properly diversify collections?" (my emphasis). (Though he admits: "I’m probably in a minority at the moment in terms of posing that question.")
  • On why the plan was abandoned: "We [ultimately] decided it would be best to remain aligned with the policies that govern our peer institutions."
  • "When conservative voices say we should never open Pandora’s box, I say, why not?"
  • "[T]he idea of moving slowly and cautiously is, I think, a little tone-deaf to the urgency of the present moment, when activist voices are calling, justly, for museums to recognize what we haven’t been doing and move quickly to remedy that."
  • "Mine is a careful dance of saying, I am very committed to the field and I want to be a part of the group that wants to thoughtfully change the agenda, while also saying there are aspects of the way that museums work historically that I disagree with on a 40,000-foot level. It’s important to stretch the conversation. Even if my position is not the governing position, the harder people push, the more it moves to the center."

Saturday, February 20, 2021

"The Museum approaches deaccessioning with the same degree of strategy and deliberation as we apply to acquisitions."

Met director Max Hollein has a very good piece at the museum's website defending the position they've taken on deaccessioning, and also an interesting interview with Brian Boucher at artnet.

Some highlights from the latter:

  • He makes the point that museums sell work all the time and no one bats an eye: "I think that sometimes even people from the field on purpose neglect the reality that museums have been involved in deaccessioning for decades. It’s not new. So this is something we can handle professionally. To suddenly say that it might be inappropriately handled, I think there’s a bit of a disconnect in that argument. I understand if criticism like that came from outside the U.S., but this is how museums have been practicing in the U.S. all along."
  • On the works that would be sold: "We’re not talking about masterpieces. These are sometimes works on paper that are duplicates, or photographs that we own in multiples. And we don’t deaccession works by living artists."
  • And he points out that "what we are considering doing, for this limited time period, is to actually allocate the funds that were already being generated from deaccessioning toward collection care and new funds being generated through our deaccessioning program, for this limited time period, not toward new acquisitions but toward collection care, meaning salaries and related costs of our employees who take care of the collection, such as conservators, mount makers, and collection managers. That’s the one change" (my emphasis).
I think this last point is crucial. Even the harshest critics of the plan admit that "deaccessioning is a routine activity of art collection management." The Met does it every year, and has an established process in place (this is from Hollein's piece):

"The criteria for deaccessioning works in the collection have been consistent for decades and include: (1) the work does not further the mission of the Museum; (2) the work is redundant or a duplicate; (3) the work is of lesser quality than other objects of the same type in the collection; and (4) the work lacks sufficient aesthetic merit or historical importance to warrant retention. The Met deaccessions works annually, resulting in revenue that varies between as little as $45,000 to as much as $25 million, driven by the wide range of values assigned to specific pieces and different media. In recent years, for example, we deaccessioned decorative arts from The American Wing, women’s night and dressing wear from the Costume Institute, and two works from European Paintings. Each object was subject to review by curators and conservators as well as the administrative staff and trustees, as outlined above. This process takes a number of months for each item."

OK, so now they've gone through this rigorous process and have arrived at a group of works that they've decided to sell as part of their (routine) art collection management. My question is (and always has been): At that point, what difference does it make what you do with the money? Yes, of course, it has to be for a legitimate institutional purpose, but assuming that's the case, who cares how the money is spent? The works are being sold anyway. It's never made any sense to me.

"Judge Tucker’s 27-page ruling upheld their motions, saying the reporting was factually true and covered by the fair-report privilege, which protects news outlets that report accurately on public records and proceedings, like court cases or municipal meetings."

Concord Monitor: Judge dismisses defamation claims surrounding coverage of suspected art forgery case.

Background here.

Charles Gaines on Deaccessioning

From an interview at artnet:

"I get into arguments with my progressive friends about this: I feel that deaccessioning for the purposes of diversification is always legitimate. History is something that I value greatly. But one of the things that’s part of the history of art is that its discourse was racist, and that should be acknowledged. Deaccessioning is one way to do that. It’s saying: We have an opportunity to comment upon history by critiquing the way this particular narrative was formed."

Sunday, February 14, 2021

"I don’t know how many billionaires sit on the board of trustees, arguably the most prestigious and desirable in Manhattan, but I am comfortable going with the adjective 'plenty.' Time to start writing lots more checks, or time to step aside." (UPDATED)

Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Christopher Knight weighs in on the "bombshell that New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art dropped into the news cycle the other day." "I don’t know about you," he writes, "but I am sick to death of reading about art museums and their scandalous schemes for stress-free fundraising by throwing principles to the winds and selling art from their collections to pay for programs, staffing and other operational costs, pandemic induced or not." He notes that "in the last 10 months, museums in Long Beach, Palm Springs, Baltimore, New York’s Syracuse, Brooklyn and now Manhattan have been behaving badly."

Confronted with all this naughtiness, "two words immediately popped into [his] head: Patriot Act."

To show how little has changed in this debate, here is my exchange with Knight from back in 2009. And here is an exchange he had with Brandeis philosophy professor Jerry Samet around the same time. More recently, the Deaccessioning Hall of Fame Scholar-in-Residence, and others, had some thoughts in response to Knight's views on the Syracuse-based "bad behavior" here.

UPDATE: Tyler Green seconds Knight's motion: "NYC has 113 billionaires. Many are on the Met's board. The wealth of billionaires increased $1.1T during the first ten months of the pandemic. It's on their fat asses."

Friday, February 12, 2021

A rumble of dissent (UPDATED)

The Art Newspaper article I linked to in the update to the last post ("Rumbles of dissent") includes the following quote from Martin Gammon, author of Deaccessioning and its Discontents: A Critical History:

"The Met, like every other major encyclopeadic museum, deaccessions all the time, and there is nothing wrong in principle with extending that practice to support the direct care of collections in the current two-year window."

I take that to be a pretty standard view. There is nothing wrong -- in principle -- with extending that practice (i.e., the practice of routine deaccessioning) to support the direct care of collections.

So if we take the form of the sentence -- "There is nothing wrong, in principle, with extending the practice to _________________" -- we know there are at least two ways to fill in the blank that most people think are acceptable: to buy more work, and to support the direct care of the collection.

The question I've been asking (and asking) is: why can't there be a third? Why can't we say there is nothing wrong, in principle, with extending the practice to, for example, keep a failing institution from having to shut its doors? What are the arguments against filling in the blank in that way that don't also apply to filling in the blank with "to support direct care of the collection"? Why is supporting the direct care of the collection a more valuable thing than keeping from going bankrupt? Once you say the practice is okay for reasons A and B, why can't it also be okay for reason C? We have to look closely at reason C, and ask whether, in the particular case in front of us, it's worth selling work to support it. But in principle why should we rule out the possibility completely?

UPDATE: Deaccessioning Hall of Fame Scholar-in-Residence Brian Frye is with me: "What is the 'principle' that prohibits deaccessioning for an otherwise good purpose? There isn't one, which is why the deaccessioning police only ever raise their voices when challenged. What is the correct 'principle' for deaccessioning? Museums should deaccession works whenever the museum thinks it's the right choice. If you disagree, take it up with the board members, who are ultimately responsible. If they violate their duties, replace them."

I agree. The "principle" is that in each case we ought to "weigh the actual costs and actual benefits and try to determine whether, on balance, all things considered, the sale is a good idea."

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

"As Museums Push to Sell Art, Competing Ideas About Deaccessioning Are Playing Out in Public" (UPDATED)

In ARTnews, Andrew Russeth has a long, balanced piece on the state of the deaccessioning debate, with lots of good quotes, including:

  • Baltimore's Christopher Bedford: "What we are doing is not for everyone, including the Christopher Knights of the world. There is a pressing, pressing, pressing need for change within institutions in this country, because we have been failing in our mission of providing the right kind of service."
  • On the argument that museum board members should just step up and provide the needed funds, Brooklyn's Anne Pasternak: "We’re public institutions. Why is it that a handful of people are expected to carry the burden of a public institution that they didn’t create?"
  • On the same question, the Everson's Elizabeth Dunbar: "We don’t have a huge collecting base here, nor do we have billionaire trustees on our board."
  • Mark Gold: "What’s unethical about using the proceeds from one painting to pay people fairly, or to address social injustice?"
  • Michael O'Hare: "Museums are a public good. We give them special financial privileges and tax-free buildings and whatnot. And their job is to maximize engagement with art and optimize engagement with art.” (Russeth summarizes O'Hare's position as follows: "reverse FASB’s position and make the AAMD’s changes permanent. Force museums to value their art on their balance sheets, then ask them tough questions about what they show, what sits in storage, and what they could sell—perhaps with a preference for other museums—to hire more employees, pay them better, and promote better engagement with art.")
  • Russeth then asks: "Wouldn’t [O'Hare's] course of action push donors and government funding away from supporting museums?" O'Hare's answer: "If the only way by which you can make a claim on people’s wealth and the taxpayer is by lying, then sure. If a rich person asked me about art philanthropy, I would say, Go down the street, walk past the museum to the symphony or chamber-music-presenting organization and give them money—until things change."
  • Christopher Knight calls O’Hare’s ideas "ridiculous" and suggests we "stop thinking like Ronald Reagan. Stop thinking that trickle-down works. It’s a mindset that says the market is the answer to all our problems. And it is not."

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

More Met

My friend Mark Gold, an experienced observer (and occasional participant) in the Deaccessioning Wars, emails regarding the news about the Met:

“It really feels like the dam has broken.

“To me, the most important sentence was the first line of the NYTimes article:  Facing a potential shortfall of $150 million because of the pandemic, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has begun conversations with auction houses and its curators about selling some artworks to help pay for care of the collection.  [Emphasis added.]

“Later, reference was made to the board's plan to revise the Met's collections care policy.

“I've always believed that expanding the definition of direct care was the way forward for museum's dealing with budget issues, more than the inevitable expansion of the AAMD rule.  The significance of the freedom given each individual museum in the AAMD statement to define direct care for itself clears the way to deploy the proceeds of deaccessioning in a much more expansive and powerful way. Doing so frees revenue from other sources to be spent for expenses that are not within care of collections.  At a minimum, it may constitute a museum survival kit.  But it can also become a budgetary philosophy that results in not just the reallocation of expenses amongst various categories, but an increase in revenues to support important initiatives like collections diversity, fair pay, etc.”

This also is a good time to mention that Mark and I – along with additional friends of the blog Brian Frye and Nicholas O’Donnell – will be on a panel together next month as part of a Syracuse University symposium entitled Deaccessioning After 2020. Details here.

Saturday, February 06, 2021

"Like many institutions, the Met is looking to take advantage of a two-year window in which the Association of Art Museum Directors ... has relaxed the guidelines that govern how proceeds from sales of works in a collection (known as deaccessioning) can be directed." (UPDATED 3X)

The Met floats a trial balloon: Facing Deficit, Met Considers Selling Art to Help Pay the Bills. It's considering. It has "begun conversations." It would be "inappropriate" not to consider it, "when we’re still in this foggy situation." They are "engaging in [an] evaluation process" that is "the more conscientious course of action." "Every museum in the U.S. is having these conversations." For them "not to discuss this now would be irresponsible."

They would also like us to know that, if it happens (which it might not, it's only being considered, mind you) it will be done carefully. "As museums periodically do routinely, the Met’s curators will evaluate the holdings in their departments with an eye to which pieces are duplicative or have been supplanted by better examples, or have rarely — if ever — been shown. Works to be sold will then have to be approved by department heads, the museum’s director and the board before public auction."

Also, anticipating one of the main lines of attack from the Deaccession Police (i.e., however legitimate the need, the money should be raised by other means), the story includes the following from a Met curator: "We’re facing a huge budget deficit. We’ve tried for years to get more robust funding for conservation."

So the idea has been floated. The "conversation" has begun. Over to you, Deaccession Police.

UPDATE: Paddy Johnson: "The Association of Museum Directors should have disqualified museums with endowments over a certain size from deaccessioning work. The Met does not need to do this."

Greg Allen: "The Met rolls out its deaccession plan in an exclusive to the Times. Meanwhile no comments from the trustees with the billions to fund the budget gap who will vote on selling artwork instead."

UPDATE 2: Brian Frye: "This is big news. If the Met starts deaccessioning in order to generate operating revenue, it's game over for the deaccessioning police. I'll eat my hat if they don't go bananas."

UPDATE 3: They're going bananas. No hats need be eaten.

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

"Last night I watched 'The Art of the Steal,' a 2009 documentary about the Barnes Foundation. It’s an Impressionist museum that moved from Merion, Pennsylvania about 5 miles to central Philadelphia. According to the movie, the Barnes was pillaged." (UPDATED)

Kriston Capps watches The Art of the Steal and concludes: "THIS DOC IS INSANE."

I could have told him that a decade ago.

As he says, the bottom line is the Barnes remains:


—Not ruined

—With all the paintings exactly the way weirdo Barnes hung them

—In a replica of the original rooms

—Only moved 5 miles

—Where millions of people can visit.

Yeah, a real tragedy.

Remember that the usual suspects were deeply opposed to the five-mile move, including Christopher Knight (who appears in the INSANE DOC and who says "we're used to hearing about corporate takeovers with for-profit corporations. But this was a nonprofit corporate takeover") and Lee Rosenbaum (who wrote an op-ed in the Times under the headline "Destroying the Museum to Save It").

UPDATE: Brian Frye: "The deaccessioning police have always been the gift that keeps on giving. Amusingly, 10 years later, they still haven't ginned up any remotely coherent arguments."

"Among the latest cases are a sculpture that used cheese as a medium to mock former President Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall, a mural called a symbol of San Francisco’s LGBTQ community, and a work highlighting Vermont’s role in the Underground Railroad."

Bloomberg Law: "Between October—when the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a $6.75 million judgment against a developer for violating VARA—and December 2020, artists filed at least a half dozen VARA claims, four of them over the destruction or removal of public art."

Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento says: "As the cliche goes, careful what you wish for. More law only means more regulation and, moreover, an increased reliance on a structure that may be betting against you."