Thursday, February 18, 2010

Culture Vultures, or, One Person's Heartbreaking Deaccession Is Another's Impulse Purchase

I've had plenty of phone interviews in which I was sure I was rambling on and on and, despite myself, feeling sorry for the journalist on the other end who I knew would later have to try to cull together some semblance of coherence from my comments or decide not to include anything I said in their article. It's tough, when you're multi-tasking to talk in sound bites, some times. And you always think, after you've hung up the phone, that there was some very important additional framing or context you should have been clear about.

So I try to give plenty of credit to others quoted in stories, but parts of the article in Today's New York Times on the bargains to be found among the items museums are being forced to deaccession at auction sound like they came straight from a bit in The Onion:
“An unsophisticated person, looking at the auction catalog, might say, ‘Oh, is the museum closing?’ ” said Linda Stamm, the owner of Winter Associates, auctioneers in Plainville, Conn. “But a sophisticated person knows it’s a good thing.” She has sold art and objects from the New Britain Museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, among others.
I can almost hear Monty Python in the background singing "Always look on the bright side of death...."

And it's not just the people quoted. It's hard to tell how tongue-in-cheek the NYT's writer Tracie Rozhon (whose specialty seems to be human interest stories geared toward readers who have more money than they know what to do with) intended this to come off, but it certainly sounds like it should have been meant to be snarky:
Important silver, once spotlighted in a museum’s burglar-proof glass case, is also deaccessioned and sold at auction, ready to grace the middle of your dining room table.
Of course, it's easy for me to poke fun at the trials and tribulations of the nouveau riche culture vultures who view auctions of closing museums' treasures kind of how the rest of us view Filene's basement. I don't have all the McMansions they have to fill.

But what do you do with the antique Japanese chain mail helmet and matching gauntlets — woven metal basted to blue material — scheduled for sale on March 8 at Winter Associates? The items come from a Connecticut museum, said Ms. Stamm, whose arrangement with this particular museum precludes mention of its name in advertising. The chain mail has an accession number, which means the museum had formally accepted it into its collection; Ms. Stamm does not know if it has ever been exhibited.

“You know, museums specialized in having unusual things,” Ms. Stamm said, addressing the issue of what one would do with the helmet and gloves. “I can picture the helmet on a wig stand on top of a cabinet, surrounded by Oriental scrolls or woodblock prints.”

Mind you, it's not the desire to possess these things I object to. I totally get that. (My ultimate dream long as I'm dreaming...would be to live at the Met.) It's the willingness to profit from a museum closure without any hint of recognition at all that the money being spent or the objects being purchased might be better used to keep help some other museum also in trouble during these times.

Then again, as I noted in the opening paragraph, just because they weren't quoted as saying so, doesn't mean the people interviewed for this article don't contribute vast sums of money or objects to museums. But now that I've read that article again, even though I'm fully dressed and ready for my day, a part of me would still like to go take another shower.

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Anonymous JL said...

While I'm not going to quibble with the idea that people should just give money to museums (I have some suggested institutions for anyone interested in doing so), I think you're overreacting a bit. None of the examples in the story, from what I saw, were of sales resulting from a museum closing. What gets lost in all of the drama surrounding most public discussions of deaccessioning is that it can be a normal, healthy part of pruning and maintaining a collection--it's not all the National Academy or cast-off Pollocks. Museums are full of very nice things that nevertheless don't fit in the intended scope of their collections, aren't in a suitable condition for public display, duplicate other holdings, or just aren't of sufficient quality or interest. It's always tricky making these judgments, but still: these are the categories into which most deaccessioned objects fall. There's nothing all that upsetting about selling such material (after a properly thorough vetting process) to raise money with which to continue to improve the collection. The objects go to people who will admire and use them, and the museum can get some more appropriate works.

2/18/2010 10:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

I always think of the religious zealots who destroyed the large buddhist cavern in Afghanistan. You only ever own something when you destroy it. Otherwise, you're temporarely borrowing luxury. Once you die, it goes back to the market, even after it's been a while in the hands of your heirs. Or maybe someone in your family starts a museum. Whatever it is. If you just want to fill a mausoleum of your stuff, it's going to attract the kind of attention that will make sure you never RIP.

Cedric C

2/18/2010 10:47:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

None of the examples in the story, from what I saw, were of sales resulting from a museum closing.

JL, you might be right about me over-reacting (it wouldn't be the first time), but it wasn't the examples that prompted the post. It was the sentiments, such as "“An unsophisticated person, looking at the auction catalog, might say, ‘Oh, is the museum closing?’... But a sophisticated person knows it’s a good thing.” [emphasis mine]

Now you can read that two ways: first is that a sophisticated person knows that just because an item was formerly acquired by a museum and is now up for auction doesn't mean the museum is closing (silly rabbit), but no matter how sophisticated you are (unless you're so sophisticated you're also clairvoyant), the assertion that "it's a good thing" (without any addition information) must be read as "Ooo...a bargain could be mine!"

It's the absence of context that I'm really getting at on a larger plain (hence the opening paragraph) and how within such a context-lacking piece these people sound rather money-grubby.

The second way to read that is equally problematic, in my opinion...which is that to be concerned about why a museum might be de-accessioning its work (and in this era in which some ARE indeed closing and others are looking for loopholes around the ethical issues to deaccess...not to buy more work but to pay their heating bills or staff) is somehow unsophisticated. "Don't worry your pretty little head over it. Some museums sell because they want to. Really, they do! The circumstances behind this particular piece coming to auction are entirely secondary to how much you might save!"

2/18/2010 10:50:00 AM  
Anonymous JL said...

I take your point about the article's presentation being a bit gauche, whatever was intended. But in general, I don't expect the buyers as such to be questioning why a museum has decided to deaccession--except, perhaps, from the perspective of, "if they don't seem to want it, why should I?"

I think the context of the article read to me somewhat different than it did to you. The types of objects most prominently mentioned--antiques and objets d'art, furniture, couture, etc.--stood out (as did the auction houses mentioned.) There's an awful lot of this stuff that will never be displayed taking up a lot of space in museum storage rooms. A lot of is attractive and interesting, but not, ultimately, all that special.

It's certainly fine--even necessary--to examine and question why museums deaccession. Such questions should be asked, however, with the understanding that most of the time, it's not a matter of an institution doing something shady but rather one of setting needed priorities. If as a result, collectors (newly-monied or otherwise) are able to buy a piece with a museum provenance and perhaps some interesting history attached, it's not a scandal--it can even be a good thing for all involved.

I'll go a step further: all other criticisms of it aside, to the extent that an article like this gives a more routine view of deaccessioning, it's actually a positive development. Too much of the discussion of the issue is dominated by the notorious, headline-making cases. This is partly the fault of museums themselves, of course. Still, vulgar though it may be, the story is something of a change from the norm on the topic, and that's not all bad.

Blah, I promised myself I'd write a post today responding (in part) to your Saltz/Facebook post of yesterday . . . now where am I going to find the time . . .

2/18/2010 01:22:00 PM  

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