Monday, August 14, 2017

Tell me again about the public trust (more than 400 photos from MoMA edition)

MoMA is selling more than 400 photos from its collection at Christie's over the next nine months.

I thought I very recently read somewhere that "one of the most fundamental and longstanding principles of the museum field is that a collection is held in the public trust and must not be treated as a disposable financial asset," but I must be mistaken.  If that were true, this sale could not be happening.

You might also think that the sale of these four hundred works "sends a message to existing and prospective donors that museums can raise funds by selling parts of their collection, thereby discouraging not only financial supporters, who may feel that their support isn’t needed, but also donors of artworks and artifacts, who may fear that their cherished objects could be sold at any time to the highest bidder to make up for a museum’s budget shortfalls."  But again, you'd be mistaken.

These are funny "principles."  Apparently they only apply some of the time.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Groundhog Day

I’ve basically been avoiding the latest deaccessioning controversy, in large part because it’s all so depressingly familiar – the usual suspects compete with each other to see who can seem the most outrageously outraged by the outrageous violation of the “ethical” code of those learned ethicists at the AAMD, and then some sane voices arise in response but are simply ignored.  So, as my contribution to the “discussion,” let me call attention to a few of those saner voices in particular.

First, a new member of my Deaccessioning Hall of Fame:  Mass MoCA’s Joe Thompson, who notes that the decision has “drawn more than its fair share of criticism that is at once overwrought and seemingly oblivious to stark facts, which reminds me of the powerful effect of art on even the most generous and considerate of souls, many of whom are friends and respected colleagues,” says “Let's get real: The museum's survival is at stake,” and closes with:  “The dedicated staff and trustees of the Berkshire Museum are not ‘douchebags’ or ‘plunderers’ or ‘phantoms’ or ‘treasonous.’ They are smart, hard-working professionals and attentive, generous volunteers who are tending one of our region's most important institutions at a precipitous moment in its history.” I would add that they’re not repulsive or Stalin-esque either.

Next is Brian Frye (who will be the first scholar-in-residence once we open the Hall of Fame):

“[T]he AAM and AAMD tacitly admit that there is no legal prohibition on museums selling artworks and using the proceeds for anything they like. But they argue that selling artwork for any purpose other than buying more artwork is ‘unethical.’ Why? It is unclear and unstated. Apparently, the AAM and AAMD think it would be ‘unethical’ for a museum to sell an artwork in order to, say, fund free admission or sponsor community arts activities. Or, as in the case of the Berkshire Museum, to prevent bankruptcy and chart a new institutional direction.  They can't be serious. Indeed, merely stating their argument exposes its absurdity. As the museum and its supporters have argued, the museum's decision is not only ‘ethical,’ but also probably required by the board's fiduciary duty to the organization.”

And last, Tim Schneider says the outrageous outrage in response to the move is “an ideologically pure, dependably crowd-pleasing position to take,” but “its naiveté also makes me want to start throwing large objects long distances out high windows.”