Alienation Decision Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Selling Museum Art in Tough Times | Sullivan and Worcester
Robin Pogrebin at New York Times wrote a great article at the news that the Brooklyn Museum intends to sell several works from its collection to raise funds. The museum draws explicitly on pandemic inspiration announced in April by the Association of Directors of Art Museums (AAMD) relaxing its industry guidelines (and waiving penalties) regarding proceeds from the sale of artwork and how the resulting proceeds should or should not be used. Syracuse University’s parallel announcement of its intention to sell a Jackson Pollock painting in a way that more conforms to the old rules offers an instructive moment to consider what has really changed in six months of a new era.
As the world fades away in march and april we tackled the changing landscape here and even in Apollo magazine. To review: in normal times the AAMD strictly supervises its instructions by sanctioning museums, more recently and publicly at the Berkshire Museum for its 2018 sale of the best paintings in its collection. In April, however, the AAMD issued temporary guidelines authorizing the expenditure of Income earned on this product (earned after the sale, and not the appreciation on the object compared to its purchase price). At the time, I wondered what impact this might have; it takes tens of millions of dollars in cash and investments to generate revenue that could contribute significantly to a museum’s bottom line. And the updated guidelines didn’t provide any further definition of what “direct care of the museum’s collection” (the use approved by the new guidelines) actually means.
The Brooklyn Museum announcement provides the first public example to consider this approach. The museum has explicitly announced that the intention is to create a pool of money that will generate approximately $2 million per year “to pay for the care of the collection.” Director Anne Pasternak told the Times that she meant “direct care, such as cleaning or transporting a work of art” and “a percentage of the salaries of those involved in such care, such as registrars, curators, curators and managers of collections”. According to The arts journal, the sale will include Lucretius by Lucas Cranach the Elder, and ten other works including that of Courbet, Banks of the Loue with rocks on the leftby Corot Italian debut holding a jugand at 15and century Saint Jerome by Donato de’ Bardi. Pasternak said The arts journal“Although a few works have been exhibited, we have much stronger examples in the collection for which we are best known” and that “[t]his approach will allow these works to enrich other collections and reach new audiences, while allowing the museum to ensure that the essentials of our collection are protected in perpetuity. There is, no doubt, some tension between marketing art at auction as unique while defending alienation on the grounds that the pieces are redundant and will not be exhibited. Here too, we imagine the museum trying to tick the boxes concerning Why a work may be sold in an attempt to maximize the value of the institution’s assets in accordance with other fiduciary obligations. These are meaningful paintings.
Shortly before the Brooklyn news, the Everson Museum in Syracuse has announced it will be selling a painting by Jackson Pollock, red composition (1946) “in order to refine, diversify and build the Museum’s collection for the future.” In other words, to buy different art. Syracuse disavowed any financial reason for the sale and presented it as entirely curatorial.
For Brooklyn and Syracuse, AAMD is not the only consideration, as New York is the only jurisdiction that has actually enshrined any of these principles in a legal context. The New York State Education Department Board of Regents, which oversees most chartered museums in New York State, has promulgated regulations governing the chartering and operation of state museums, which include rules regarding the alienation. NY Comp. Codes R. & Regs tit. 8, § 3.27 (2013). If a museum violates the regulations of the regents, the regents have the power to revoke the institution’s charter, and no museum can operate in New York State without a charter or other authorization from the regents. NY Educ. Law § 216.
The regulations require a written collections management policy that ensures that proceeds from the sale of assigned works of art must be allocated to a separate fund and cannot be used for any purpose other than “the acquisition, preservation , conservation or direct maintenance of the collections”. Identifier. § 3.27(c)(6)(vii). The regulations provide that a museum may only alienate a work of art from its collection if the work meets one of the following criteria: “(i) the object is incompatible with the mission of the institution as set out in its mission statement; (ii) the item has not retained its identity; (iii) the item is redundant; (iv) the element’s preservation and conservation needs exceed the capacity of the institution to meet them; (v) the item is alienated to refine collections; (vi) the item has been determined to be inauthentic; (vii) the institution repatriates the item or returns it to its rightful owner; (viii) the Institution returns the Item to the Donor, or the Donor’s heirs or assigns, to comply with the Donor’s restrictions on the Item that the Institution is no longer able to comply with; (ix) the item poses a hazard to persons or other collectibles; and/or (x) the item has been lost or stolen and not found. Identifier. § 3.27(c)(7).
Each of the Brooklyn (and Syracuse) proposals clearly satisfies these regulations as long as it has the required collection policy (all major museums I know of do), and Brooklyn’s explanation that the funds will be used for the “direct care” is surely intentional. Yet the meaning of these terms remains largely a matter of interpretation. It could be argued that almost all of a museum’s expenditure is for the upkeep of the collection because, despite the easy wording by boston globe columnist Jeff Jacoby defending the Berkshire Museum clearance sale that “a museum’s greatest asset is its open doors”, no one pays to go to an empty museum unless they rent it out as a reception hall. The museum is there for what it contains, whether it is on display or hidden but accessible to scholars. But the electricity that powers an HVAC system cares about collection, right? And “a percentage” of Conservative salaries recalls Lisa Simpson’s question to C. Montgomery Burns’ environmental good faith: “Each copy contains a certain percentage of recycled paper. And what percentage is it? Zero…zero is one percent.”
The question is not moot, as we wrestled with last spring. Most museums have been closed for six months. Invoices are due. The arts journal reported that the Royal Academy of Arts in London planned to remove forty percent of his trades.
What is the difference in how the museum uses the money? Insofar as the objection is rooted in concern about moving works from a museum to a private collection, the question is fair. In a finite space museum, what is East the point of having things that most people will never see (his proposed pseudo-psychological explanation that they are “accumulators” falls short)? The answer is not simple, but fundamentally it should be because museums are repositories of knowledge and access to knowledge that requires longer term thinking. At best, a museum is not simply a Wal-Mart just-in-time display of what is most valuable or current. At the same time, people are giving lots and lots of what could be considered scrap metal for charity, which languishes in storage and diverts space and resources.
What the “two-year” moratorium actually means is also left unsaid. Assuming the Brooklyn Museum creates this $40 million fund, does the AAMD expect the museum, after two years, to go on an acquisition spree with the funds that have been invested and that generate cash income? Brooklyn would (still) be in compliance with the Regents, but would he risk AAMD sanctions if he stuck to the same approach? And will anyone care?