Sunday, March 21, 2021

"Selling Art to Pay the Bills Divides the Nation’s Museum Directors"

The NYT's Robin Pogrebin and Zachary Smalls have a piece on the "heated" debate museums are having about whether to make permanent the "temporary two-year loosening of an Association of Art Museum Directors’ policy that has long prohibited American institutions from selling art from their collections to help pay the bills" -- "an idea that, depending on which institution you talk to, either makes perfect sense or undermines the very rationale for their existence."

They say "the longstanding policy" in the field has been "that the art owned by institutions was held for the public benefit and, as such, should be mostly retained."

Framed that way, I don't think there's anyone who would disagree. Everyone agrees the art should be mostly retained.

The traditional AAMD view is that it should be mostly retained, except it can be sold to buy more art. (This is not "monetizing," even though you are taking the money from sales and using that money to do something else, i.e. buy art.)

Those on the other side of the heated debate believe that the art should be mostly retained, except it can be sold to buy more art and, occasionally, for other pressing needs.

Various views are expressed.

Erik Neil of the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk says "We are educational institutions. If you want to flip paintings, there are many other types of institutions where you can do that, and they are called commercial galleries" -- but he doesn't explain why flipping paintings to buy more art does not make you a commercial gallery.

The Brooklyn Museum's Anne Pasternak says "We need to really rethink some of our orthodoxies carefully so that our institutions cannot only survive but meet the demands of our time and flourish" -- and then adds this great response to the "it's on their fat asses" crowd:

"People will say trustees can pay for this. What planet are they on? Why is it the trustees’ responsibility to pay 100 percent of expenses for public institutions? That attitude is conflicting at best. It’s misinformed to think that every museum has a board full of billionaires."

Max Anderson says "To say we have billions of dollars of art and yet you’re holding out your tin cup to the community saying, ‘Please support our museum and by the way we are now able to sell art to pay our bills,’ the community will say, ‘So why are you coming to me?'" (To which Michael O'Hare might say: "If the only way by which you can make a claim on people’s wealth and the taxpayer is by lying, then sure.")

Anderson also says if a "museum steps outside of a charitable purpose and becomes more of a commercial entity,” that "opens up an entire world of hurt around the model which has for over a century governed nonprofit organizations." It's not clear to me how selling assets to be better able to serve your charitable purpose is stepping outside of a charitable purpose, but, in any case, once again, museums sell work all the time (to fund acquisitions) without anyone suggesting they thereby "become more of a commercial entity."

Finally, they mention the argument -- attributed to no one in particular but you could call it the Lee Rosenbaum position -- that "in fact, most museum collections are so full of donated works for which tax deductions have been taken that it’s fair to say they have been underwritten in part by the American taxpayer. Will the routine resale of such gifts call into question the favorable tax treatment enjoyed by museums as charitable organizations?" Michael Rushton (and I) addressed that argument here, and again I would just ask: why doesn't the routine resale of such gifts to buy other, different works of art (which even the bitterest critics of any change to existing policy admit is "a routine activity of art collection management") call into question such favorable tax treatment?