Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sales by museums

The NY Times reports on a Philadelphia museum's sales of parts of its collection to finance renovations, and on the controversy this has caused: Museum Sells Pieces of Its Past, Reviving a Debate

"A galloping horse weather vane sold for about $20,000, and the cigar store Indians brought in more than $1 million. A Thomas Sully oil painting of Andrew Jackson netted $80,500, and a still life by Raphaelle Peale, part of the family that put portraiture in this city on the map, was auctioned at Christie’s for $842,500.

"These were just a few of more than 2,000 items quietly sold by the Philadelphia History Museum over the last several years, all part of an effort to cull its collection of 100,000 artifacts and raise money for a $5.8 million renovation of its 1826 building.

In doing so the museum stepped into the quicksand of murky rules, guidelines and ethical strictures meant to discourage museums everywhere from selling collections to pay bills. It is one of the hottest issues in the museum world today. With budgets shrinking in a bad economy, the pressure to generate revenue is growing along with fears that museums are squandering public trusts meant to preserve the artifacts of the past for future generations.

The National Academy Museum in New York, Fisk University and Brandeis have all recently drawn fire — and even sanctions — for selling or planning to sell artworks, and none of them sold as many works as the museum here.

"In general art and objects are supposed to be sold only to finance acquisitions, though different museums are governed by different standards. Art museums, regulated by a formal code of the Association of Art Museum Directors, may not sell work for any other reason.

"As a history museum, though, this institution — formally called the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent — is subject to separate, less stringent guidelines put forward by other associations. So museum officials say the installation of new carpet, paint and lighting were all legitimate expenses to be paid from the proceeds under the guidelines of the  American Association of Museums, which say that sales can be used for the “direct care” of a collection. Adding to the confusion, there is a third set of standards maintained by theAmerican Association for State and Local History permitting proceeds to go toward the “preservation” of a collection, a similarly broad term.

"The New York State legislature, confronting this maze of precepts, recently considered passing a law that would make selling collections — the art world term is deaccessioning — to pay operating expenses illegal. It never made it to the Assembly floor because museums opposed it."

And here's another story about a librarian who submitted her resignation over deaccessioning: Small Town, Big Word, Major Issue
"Deaccessioning is the kind of word that makes eyes glaze over and can seem to be the preserve of dusty intellectuals and large museums. But it’s just a fancy name for the sale or giving away of art and artifacts by museums and other cultural organizations, and the dust-up here in this city of about 5,000 demonstrates that such debates occur in all kinds of places, big and small, where people feel protective about materials in their care.
With her personal gesture of protest in late September, Ms. Phillips stepped into a growing public controversy surrounding institutions that have sold or considered selling parts of their collections, which have been entrusted to them for the public’s benefit. Some say such sales can compromise collections, and others argue that museums, libraries and historical societies have to cull their collections periodically, particularly if there is pressure to pay their bills.
In Little Falls, library officials said they were selling things to raise money, not to cover operating costs, which institutions try to avoid, but to preserve other artifacts.
“We don’t have the space to take care of some of these items,” said Chester P. Szymanski III, the library’s president. “We’re not a museum. We’re a library.”

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