Dec 11, 2008

Deacessioning, Art and the Bottom Line

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There's been a great deal written about the National Academy's decision to sell these two works Scene on the Magdalene  by Frederic Edwin Church (1854) and Mt. Mansfield, by Sanford Robinsons Gifford (1859). 

Lee Rosenbaum was the first to report the story (though she seems a little too fond of criticizing conventional news outlets for not linking her in -- despite a paucity of links to other blogs by Lee herself).  As regular readers of Lee will know she has been very critical of deacessioning generally and this one in particular: 

I have never credited the deaccession-or-die argument and I still don't. That was Fisk University's justification for its attempt to monetize its Stieglitz Collection. When it was instructed by a judge not only to keep the collection but to get it back up on public view, it somehow managed to raise funds the old-fashioned way, allowing it both to display the collection and to keep the university afloat. I believe that deaccessioning is the easy way out, even more tempting today as museums grapple with Dow-ravaged endowments and distressed donors.
 But she notes:

 The National Academy is an honorary association of artists ... who are responsible for its governance. The artist/members voted 181 to 1 ... in favor of selling the works. An alternative that was considered but rejected was selling the Academy's swank Fifth Avenue mansion and moving to less pricey quarters.
 Donn Zaretsky at the invaluable art law blog responds to this argument:
 So let me get this straight. The museum runs a "chronic operating deficit." Its $10-million endowment is "restricted to specific purposes and cannot be used for general operating funds." Its artist board members voted 181 to 1 in favor of the sale. The purchase agreement "stipulated that the paintings were to be hung publicly." There's a good chance they'll end up on view at the Crystal Bridges Museum.

And we're supposed to be outraged by this . . . why?
I think Zaretsky makes the more compelling argument here.  Is art really this static?  He notes yesterday as well that:

Another question worth exploring is whether it's sensible to draw such a sharp distinction between the acquisition of art, on the one hand, and other ways museums spend money, on the other. Take, for example, Whitechapel Gallery, only because it was just in the news earlier this week. It recently completed a $20 million renovation and expansion -- a "desperately needed" makeover. "The added space will allow the gallery to remain open continuously, whereas before it had to close about 10 weeks a year when installing new art. Its educational space was too small to accommodate even an average-size school class, and the former library had no wheelchair access." Is it not possible to see those things as every bit as important to the institution's mission as the acquisition of additional artwork? Is keeping the museum open an extra 10 weeks a year not a good art-related reason? Does expanding space for education not count either? Why should we automatically assume that buying art always justifies a deaccessioning, but that no other use of proceeds -- no matter how important to an institution's mission -- ever can?

The argument against deaccessioning is essentially that funding should be found from private donors somehow, and its better for a museum to shutter its doors, and close up shop temporarily and move across town than to sell  a work.  Let's compare the National Academy's decision with the difficulties at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art.  MOCA pencilled itself into a financial corner.  The institution is in dire financial straights, but according to the LA Times' Tim Rutten:

[T]he curatorial staff was busy putting on exhibitions that won acclaim around the world, nobody bothered about the cost. Year after year, as expenses outstripped revenue, the board let the professional managers dip into capital -- the endowment -- to cover the shortfall in operating expenses. More recently, they've also been borrowing from restricted gifts to the museum, including those for new acquisitions. While other institutions were pinching pennies and cutting back, Strick actually increased the size of MOCA's professional staff by at least 50 people.As one trustee, who also asked to remain anonymous, said this week, "All this happened without anybody on the board screaming -- and somebody should have screamed."
 We might point to the financial mismanagement, but how much of this financial difficulty can be focused on the decision to focus on the art itself, on the acclaimed exhibitions.   MOCA seems to have focused entirely on the art, and now needs the art world equivalent of a financial bailout.  The National Academy has instead chosen to deaccession works, which has produced a dramatic reaction from the Association of Art Museum Directors essentially ostracizing the New York institution from the American Art community.  Are the two related? 

I find it very interesting how swiftly the AAMD responded to the National Academy, especially given the downright glacial pace with which it responds to instances of antiquities looting or illegal export.  But might the AAMD be also sending a message to MOCA here, and other institutions in looming financial difficulty that in the current economic climate deaccessioning is not a viable option?  (As I was writing I notice that  Christopher Knight has picked up on the same possibility).  That seems the most likely reason for the dramatic and swift response.  Fund raising and arts funding is going to be tighter in the coming years and months.  The United States has largely been immune from these kinds of painfull art departures, in large part because it has been the buyer.  But as American dominance may be waning, perhaps there will be some tension between America's expansive art buying policy and the loss of works of art from museums and instituions.  I think there are a lot of complicated questions to resolve here, as art moves from the historical financial and economic centers of America in cities like Philadelphia or Boston to Bentonville Arkansas or even abroad.  Perhaps America's laws will have to shift and become more 'retentionist' as this art loss becomes more common. 
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