Monday, December 29, 2008

What Becomes a "Semi-Permanent" Collection Most?

I don't really have a dog in this particular fight, per se, but as someone working to have the art by the artists we represent acquired by museums, I do feel my opinion on the matter in general is worth considering carefully. The following is meant to spark conversation as well as point out my personal observations only (i.e., not suggest I have any authority in this realm):

In response to a controversy over the deaccession of two paintings by New York's National Academy Museum, the New York Times' Jori Finkel (full disclosure: who I am acquainted with and adore) surveys those on both sides of the question of whether the strict rules by which museums must abide when deaccessioning work should be reconsidered. Titled "Whose Rules Are These, Anyway?" Jori's article focuses on two questions:
Why, several experts ask, is it so wrong for a museum to sell art from its collection to raise badly needed funds? And now that many institutions are facing financial hardship, should the ban on selling art to cover operating costs be eased?
Before Carmine Branagan, the director of the National Academy Museum, sold two Hudson River School paintings to raise much needed cash, she reportedly put out feelers to two museum associations she belonged to:
She knew that both the American Association of Museums and Association of Art Museum Directors had firm policies against museums’ selling off artworks because of financial hardship and were not going to make an exception.

Even so, she said, she was not prepared for the directors group’s “immediate and punitive” response to the sale. In an e-mail message on Dec. 5 to its 190 members, it denounced the academy, founded in 1825, for “breaching one of the most basic and important of A.A.M.D.’s principles” and called on members “to suspend any loans of works of art to and any collaborations on exhibitions with the National Academy.”

Ms. Branagan, who had by that time withdrawn her membership from both groups, said she “was shocked by the tone of the letter, like we had committed some egregious crime.”
OK, so Ms. Branagan followed the proper chronology here, IMO, by withdrawing from the groups before moving forward with her obviously tough decision. As for the rest of the museums who might consider following her lead (and the slippery slope argument seems to be the museum associations' biggest concern), it does seem to me that the time to suggest that rules are antiquated is before one breaks them, not after. In other words, the members of the associations should work to change the rules, not complain when they are enforced.

The AAMD considers the rules important enough to list its position on it at the top of their Position Papers and Reports. Indeed, their position seems fairly clear:
Deaccessioning is practiced to refine and enhance the quality, use, and character of an institution’s holdings. There are two fundamental principles that are always observed whenever an AAMD member art museum deaccessions an object:
  • The decision to deaccession is made solely to improve the quality, scope, and appropriateness of the collection, and to support the mission and long-term goals of the museum;
  • Proceeds from a deaccessioned work are used only to acquire other works of art—the proceeds are never used as operating funds, to build a general endowment, or for any other expenses.
Funds from deaccessioning can be invested in an acquisitions endowment earmarked to support the long-term growth of a museum’s collection.
Again, I'll stay out of whether or not the AAMD was unduly harsh in their response to the National Academy Museum's decision, but in researching this question, one phrase museums use jumped out at me as perhaps sorely in need of reconsideration. What does it mean to have a "Permanent Collection" if deaccessioning is not so seriously regulated or discouraged? The National Academy Museum takes considerable pride in discussing their "Permanent Collection" and discusses it in terms that suggest they understand that the need for regulations is how such a collection comes to be:
Masterworks in these and other styles have come into the Academy's collection mainly as gifts from newly elected National Academicians in compliance with membership requirements; thereby continually enriching the collection. [emphasis mine]
Moreover, what does the term permanent even mean if a museum can define "financial hardship" in any way they wish and use that as a reason to sell off work for purposes other than increasing the collection? Actually, to be quite literal about it, what does permanent even mean if they ever sell any of the work in it at all?

UPDATE: Don't miss Tyler's take on this.
UPDATE 2: Also be sure you catch Donn Zaretsky's well-balanced discussion of the strict anti-deaccessionists arguments.

Labels: art museums, deaccession


Blogger patsplat said...

There is a bit of cruelty at play here. Desperate institutions get vilified for trying to survive.

I wonder what happens to a collection when an institution finally goes under. What is the policy for liquidation?

12/29/2008 12:20:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

What is the policy for liquidation?


I'm afraid we may be about to see this possibility in action. Private, Local, State and Fed money is very close to non-existent.

Is there money out there to buy the auctioned/orphaned works, except at bargain basement prices? Put the 75‰ off signs up!

12/29/2008 01:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Ken Hagler said...

"Permanent collection" is a misnomer anyway. The chances of any given work of art still being in a particular museum's collection after 1000 years is roughly nil. For that matter, the chance of any particular museum still existing in 1000 years isn't much better.

Also, I think that the people in those groups that are making such a fuss should probably buy a dictionary and look up the word "property," as the concept seems to have escaped them thus far. If they don't like some museum selling its own property, they can buy the pieces themselves and then do whatever they like with them.

12/29/2008 01:34:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

It's eyeronic. Here we are at the ass end of the greatest art boom in history and finding that our museums are going under. No just the musty old National Academy but the bright shiny, best of it's class, Los Angeles MOCA. Well ok, MOCA is getting a cash infusion from the Broad Foundation which should help put it back on some sort of solid footing, but if that hadn't happened they were in trouble.

The National Academy is a disaster and I think the criticism over the sale of artworks is deserved. This is a nice little 19th century museum which hasn't been able to make the transition into the twentieth century. The idea that they should sell part of the collection in order to meet operating expenses is a travesty. "Operating Expenses" are a recurring item, they don't go away just because you pay one bill. Operating expenses need to be met using a the recurring cash flow from a suitable endowment and the way you get a "suitable endowment" is by successful fundraising.

From what I can see, the problem with the National Academy is that it's poorly managed. Worse, it's not being managed but just inching along doing what they have always done, as if that would be a solution which will work in the 21st century.

The National Academy a rudderless museum with no mandate for the future, no effective fundraising programs, poor publicity but it does have an interesting collection of art. This is the 21st century, "academies" died in the 19th century, the museum needs to redefine its mission, find a new director and raise enough funds to meet operating expenses without selling off artworks from its collection.

If not, the National Academy should be put out of it's misery and merged with another institution. It is one thing to deaccession artworks in order to fund the purchase of new art works and quite another to spend the money for expenses.

Well it's been a boring week...

12/29/2008 02:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, very timely and provocative.

Well, I have to agree wholehearteldy with George above. Sustainability can not be assured via deaccession. Since operating expenses, etc. are reoccuring and must be satisifed per annum, the sustainability of a museum can not be remedied by a one time or rare event such as deaccession.

Moreover, macroeconomic and credit market conditions flunctuate dramatically and the future volatility can not be accurately estimated, so deaccession is no answer to managing a museum's risk of shortfall.

Museum's and the art industry must become more creative in enabling both artists and institutions to yield greater levels of income or reoccuring revenues from art transactions.

The answer may be the advent of licensing and royalty deals similar to many that are customary in music and film entertainment.

Maybe, the museum's could leverage the value of their collections by creating bonds, futures, and/or options that allow institutional investors to invest in institutions and achieve gains or losses by the market's perceived flunctuations in the permanent collections' value.

I'm no expert, but, my husband is a writer and artist, and I would love to see some innovation in the valuation, value maximization, and protection of our fine art cultural heritage.

12/29/2008 10:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nothing is permanent. Regarding art just look back a little and find many fine bronces melted to help a "war effort". What about looting? Architecture, same, bombed. You forgot the Budhas and the Taliban?

Museums and collections should flow with the times and taste. Scholarship remains but the objects should and have to move. The Academy is doing what thinks its best with their property. And don't be fools, most institutions sell more than you think and it is not for buying more art but to pay salaries and insurance. Or don't they rent the stuff now?

12/30/2008 09:58:00 AM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

The reason museum's can't sell art to pay the heating bill isn't that selling per se is bad. The problem is, it encourages bad administrators to pillage the collection rather than raising money or building audiences to support the institution.

The Academy is kind of a hybrid -- part museum, part artists' organization -- and I don't think it works well.

12/30/2008 10:51:00 PM  

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