Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Different Bottle, Same W(h)ine

I've mentioned before that the Deaccession Police have recently been engaged in a project of re-branding themselves as the Monetization Police.

Chief Branding Officer (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Christopher Knight has a new piece in the LA Times complaining about monetization, which he defines as "selling collection art to raise money to pay operating bills or capital expenses." He wags his finger at "opportunistic museums in Baltimore, Brooklyn, Syracuse, San Diego, Palm Springs and elsewhere" who have recently "cashed in art," and says they have been "egged on by a few clueless art lawyers and errant academics."

I'd like to say a word in support of the former group. (By the way it's not the first time Knight has given us clueless art lawyers too much credit when it comes to deaccessioning practices. He once claimed the chairman of the board of LA MOCA was "a Zaretskian who figured that if MOCA was spending money it didn't have, it really didn't matter" because it could always sell off collection art. I responded to that here.)

Knight contrasts the "fine surprise" of UCLA selling a Picasso -- for an estimated $6-8 million -- with the "dismal example" of the Met's recent announcement that it will be selling off a number of duplicate prints and photographs from its collection. The difference, for him, is "the planned use for the funds raised from the sales." In UCLA's case, the money from the sale will be used for future acquisitions. In the Met's case, the money will be used for something else -- "mostly salaries, it appears" -- which is, he says, "appalling."

And here's where the re-branding comes in. "What the Met is doing," he says, "is not traditional deaccessioning, ... although it’s usually misrepresented in the media as such. What the Met is doing is monetizing its collection."

Leaving aside the fact that he fails to explain why what UCLA is doing -- which is taking a work from its collection and exchanging it for money -- is not also monetization, the striking thing to me about the piece is that he never bothers to say why it's appalling to use sale proceeds for other purposes that a museum judges to be valuable.

He does say that the kind of deaccessioning UCLA is engaged in is "a long-standing best practice in the profession," "a long-established museum norm." (Notice how deeply conservative his position really is: this is right because this is how it's always been done.) But he doesn't say why that practice cannot change, why that norm cannot evolve. In other words, he still hasn't answered the question put to him by Brandeis philosophy professor Jerry Samet during the Rose Art Museum controversy more than 10 years ago (just substitute "appalling" for "repulsive"):

"You say:  'Yes, legally it is quite possible to sell museum art and pay the university's bills with the income. Ethically, however, it's repulsive.'

"As the chair of the Committee whose report you discuss, I have to ask:

"'Can you explain what exactly is repulsive about it? If you replace '... and pay the university's bills' in your condemnation with a real description of what those bills are FOR--eg: '... and provide scholarships to students whose families are suddenly unable to afford the tuition' or '... and pay professors instead of canceling courses and cutting back programs', and so on, perhaps you'll rethink your judgment.

"If you STILL think it's repulsive, then you owe your readers an explanation of how you've arrived at this moral view. Is it your view that selling art to do ANYTHING in the world except buy more art is morally repulsive???"

He still hasn't explained how he's arrived at his view; instead he just keeps repeating that it's a violation of long-established norms. (Put another way, long-established norms can and should sometimes be reconsidered.) The closest he gets to an argument is that the Met's sale makes it more likely that other museums will follow suit. But he never says why it would be wrong for those other museums to do so as well.

As I said recently in discussing the Met's "dismal example," once you've identified the works ("duplicates, multiples, copies of the same thing [we have] in better quality") that are to be sold as part of your routine collection management -- call it deaccessioning, monetization, whatever you like -- what difference does it make what you do with the proceeds? We clueless art lawyers are still waiting for an answer.