Selling from museum collections

About a month ago I put up a brief post about the plans of a small New York museum, the National Academy, with little space and a collection that’s nearly all in storage, to sell a couple of paintings partly to keep the wolf from the door and partly to be able to show more of what it has. The Association of Art Museum Directors grandly excommunicated the Academy, forbidding its members to lend them anything (really), and I think passing the word that members ought never again to be caught drinking chablis at any event besmirched by Academy personnel. [Update: Mark and James weigh in on this here, here, and here; the last one features a tech idea with real legs.)

[Museum people and art people like to call this deaccessioning, not selling , perhaps because the fine art world is so holy and refined and ineffable and generally ever so much more so than the rest of human enterprise that it just wouldn’t do to use a term so crude and trade-soiled. Gentlemen do not buy and sell, after all, any more than they write, paint, or sing; they have people to do that for them. I like to call it, um, selling, because it looks to me like exchanging a chattel for money, but someday I may acquire the polish and patina of a refined person and learn better manners.]

Anyway, the National Academy flap has generated more public discussion than I expected, including a piece in the Times last week with a couple of fairly low-candlepower quotes from yr. obdt. svt., several viewings-with-alarm unencumbered with analysis or much insight from Lee Rosenbaum the Culturegrrl, and some real reflection from Donn Zaretsky at the Arts Law Blog (latest post here with links back).

Rosenbaum is especially irksome, because she blithely advises any museum facing financial trouble (as many, many, are about to do) to “embrace furious fundraising”, as though income were in some way assured by asking for it very vigorously, and then in the same piece, snottily disses the current director of the National Academy, Carmine Branagan, for being a business person and not an art person – though it’s exactly the feckless, entitled, romantic business incompetence, like thinking fundraising equals fundgetting, of the aht puhssons who ran the place before Branagan, that drove the Academy to the edge of the cliff.

The debate on the whole illustrates the inability of policy discussion to proceed without attention to goals and criteria [more after the jump].

Zaretsky implicitly asks the question, but doesn’t offer an answer: what are museums supposed to be doing? I defy any reader of this discourse to infer a goal behind the assertions and pronouncing that could be stated in public with a straight face. My best try: “the purpose of art is to be in a museum as soon as possible and to stay in that museum forever”, with the important corollary “in a museum does not mean ‘on display’ or accessible to the public!”, and museum practice should be evaluated insofar as it serves that end. Another version, more personal: “society’s policy toward the plastic arts should ensure the comfort of professionals in museums, and their comfort is greatly vexed when they have to make decisions.” Obviously, if these are the motives in practice, it’s well to keep them under wraps.

The idea of opportunity cost, or of consequences, or just thinking more than about a half a step into the future, for that matter, is infuriatingly AWOL. Selling a work from a museum collection is treated with the greatest insouciance by the anti-selling crowd as though the work went forever to an inaccessible universe or on a bonfire and scary words like “lost” are flung about. No-one seems to want to note that for a New York museum to have its six Pittorissimos (two on public view), of which the world stock is fixed since poor Pittorissimo died in 1550, means people in Seattle, Denver, Shanghai, etc. will have none. Consideration of the art experience of a population (worldwide, national, or even local) is completely off the table, as is the idea that at any given budget (after we do Rosenbaumesque furious fundraising and then some), the total art experience value created by a museum combines having stuff to show with how you show it and (for Pete’s sake!) how much of it you show, and that maximizing this value requires serious attention to the allocation of resources across a building, programming, and the collection.

One could as reasonably write up a code of ethics requiring museums never to acquire a work of art nor hire a staffer if the money could be spent on expanding the building, as to enshrine as a moral duty the absurd principle that the collection of any given museum is a ratchet that only goes one way.

The intellectual basis of making good decisions is not rocket science, no more demanding than running the businesses with which museum trustees earned the money that put them on the board. Museums are to put art before people so there is the most, best, engagement between the public and the art. Of course a museum should have a backstock, and should make cagey bets on works not now popular or interesting but that might become so in the future or might realistically be important in a special exhibition someday. But having stuff, other things being equal, especially having more undisplayed work when you already have a lot, does nothing for the goal I stated. And keeping stuff in your basement that has vanishingly small probability of ever being shown in your museum, that would be on a wall with people in front of it in the hands of a buyer (museum or private party), is not just ineffective but retrograde. The sale proceeds could pay for lighting, lectures, scholarship, labels, cleaning the toilets, conservation, longer hours, lower admission price, (do I need to go on?) … yes, or more building with more wall to hang more of your pictures on, and every one of these is a complement to engagement with art. Not an optional feature, or a marketing trick, or something-nice-to-have-if-its-cheap; a complement.

My local university museum is redesigning its new building to be one story smaller than originally planned for “lack of funds”; no doubt the just and proper deserts of subfurious fundraising. My local university museum, its former director informed me, also has a collection (mostly not on display, of course, including a very disproportionate batch of Hans Hofmanns) worth $750 million. There will be a lot less looking at paintings and sculpture in the smaller building with the collection intact, than there would be in the larger building with, say, six-sevenths of the current collection. What it might have sold would be looked at somewhere else as well. One more time; who is better off, how, because of this decision?

Mindless hoarding of whatever art it happens to have, by any particular museum, is irresponsible trusteeship of a patrimony whose purpose is to be seen and appreciated, not to be possessed. Elevating this hoarding, and refusal to think about how resources can be used, to a moral/ethical professional principle is worse, not only nuts but hostile to everything that really matters about art.

I believe museum professionals are enabled in their bad behavior by, strangely enough, a special accounting rule that allows the collection to be completely invisible in the balance sheet. No, really: they buy a painting, show an expense, and it just disappears! This gets a little technical, but you can read (maybe more than you want) about it here.

Zaretsky admirably tees up the “slippery slope” meme: “if we allow the least little bit of selling from the collection, there will be no stopping it and all the museums will sell everything and the world will have no art at all.” He doesn’t knock the cover off it, but it looks pretty ragged after he swings his 2-wood. His stuff is definitely among the most considerable and deserves a read. I hope he stays on it, because this is not an arcane spat in a small unimportant community, it’s about whether an exclusive club is permitted to keep our common artistic patrimony for their private entertainment at public expense (yes, Virginia, museums in the US are either government agencies or tax-exempt non-profits), or forced to give us a chance to benefit from it. Art, in turn, is sort of, um, what makes life worth living.