Wednesday 7 January 2009

Brass tacks

As we ponder entry charges, the visual arts community in the States is loudly debating deaccessioning, following the National Academy Museum in New York's decision to sell two Hudson River School paintings for approx. $US15 million to help keep the institution afloat.

The professional standard is that collection items should only be sold in order to buy more works for the collection (e.g. selling off a lesser Rembrandt print in order to trade up to a better version). Carmine Branagan, director of the NAM, alerted the American Association of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors about the decision, but according to this article in the New York Times, was unprepared for their response:

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 Branagan, who had by that time withdrawn her membership from both groups, said she “was shocked by the tone of the letter, like we had committed some egregious crime.”

She called the withdrawal of loans “a death knell” for the museum, adding, “What the A.A.M.D. have done is basically shoot us while we’re wounded.”

Beyond shaping the fate of any one museum, this exchange has sparked larger questions over a principle that has long seemed sacred. 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?

The NYT article provides good background if you want to start reading some of the debate about deaccessioning for reasons other than collection enhancement. I'd recommend:

  • Richard Lacayo's two pieces (one and two)
  • Michael O’Hare's blog post (cultural policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, quoted in the NYT article)
  • Donn Zaretsky (also cited in the NYT article) has a number of posts on the topic on his art law blog - maybe start with this one.
  • This NPR article, where Graham Beal, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, suggests that the NAM should have sold their building before selling collection items.

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