Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Repugnance watch: Deaccessioning art (i.e. selling it)

Some time ago I had a set of posts on Brandeis University's plan to sell some of its art. Apparently the professional ethics of museums allows art to be sold to buy other art, but not to fix the roof or pay for other things.  Sometimes a sale would violate the terms of the gift of the art, but apparently the repugnance applies even when it would not. Now comes a story (in the NY Times) about similar considerations at Fisk University: A Prized Stettheimer Painting, Sold Under the Radar by a University

"When Fisk University, the historically black school in Nashville, tried to sell two paintings several years ago from its storied Alfred Stieglitz art collection, a firestorm erupted. The proposed sale violated conditions of the gift of the collection from Stieglitz’s widow, Georgia O’Keeffe, according to her foundation.

"A drawn-out legal challenge ended in a compromise in 2012 that allowed Fisk to share its collection with Crystal Bridges, the Arkansas museum founded by Alice Walton, the Walmart heiress, bringing the struggling university an infusion of $30 million.

"But what was not revealed at the time, and has only recently come to light, is that before the agreement was completed — and with the debate over the future of Fisk itself swirling around her — Hazel O’Leary, then the university’s president, on behalf of the school quietly sold off two other paintings owned by Fisk.

"The institution was “under duress,” said Patrick Albano of Aaron Galleries, an art dealer from Illinois whom Ms. O’Leary asked to broker the sale.
"According to Mr. Albano, Fisk decided to sell work by Stettheimer and the painter and illustrator Rockwell Kent, which had been donated to the university with “no strings attached.”

“Shame on them,” said Lyndel King, director of the Weisman Museum at the University of Minnesota and a chairwoman of the Task Force for the Protection of University Collections, referring to Fisk’s actions. “It’s very much against the ethics of our profession.”

"Though the task force does not have legal authority over universities, its members, who represent several museum associations, can censure those who sell art to pay operating expenses, putting pressure on them not to treat art as an A.T.M. That practice “alienates donors and undermines the purpose of having a museum on campus,” Ms. King said.

"Various museum associations say that deaccessioning art, if not in violation of the original gift, is justified if the proceeds are used to buy more art. It is the cherry-picking of a painting here and a painting there to bolster an endowment or support operating expenses that is frowned upon.

"Universities, however, have argued in several settings that they must consider such sales when the fiscal alternatives — cutting programs or staff — are untenable."

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