Why the AAMDs move on deaccessioning matters so much

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The Association of Art Museum Directors imposed sanctions on the institution in 2018 after it sold works of art to create an endowment and make capital improvements. AlexiusHoratius

When Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was interviewed about the drug remdesivir, he was not optimistic that it would be the most effective treatment for COVID-19 but was enthusiastic about its constituting a “proof of concept.” The test results proved that something affects the virus. And that is a very big deal.

The recent statement by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) that, for a period of two years, museums are allowed to use the income from the proceeds of deaccessioning for operating expenses and that it would withhold sanctions for using the proceeds for purposes other than new acquisitions is the equivalent in the museum community. It is less about the practical effect their decision will have, but rather that the professional principle that prohibited those actions is not the impenetrable rampart it seemed to be. Its more like a Jenga tower. And the AAMD has just pulled out the first block.

When museums have been sanctioned in the past, AAMD members were asked to refrain from lending or borrowing works of art to the sanctioned museum and refrain from collaborating with it on exhibitions. The public condemnation and shaming by the AAMD and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) prior to censure and sanctions is considerable and designed to stimulate opposition in the local and museum communities.

Given the history of very public condemnation heaped on offending museums by the AAMD and the AAM, it is inconceivable that any board of trustees could be unaware of the consequences of their decision. During the Berkshire Museums deliberations over a controversial deaccessioning plan in 2017, its board of trustees received two separate briefings from its consultants and its legal counsel on what response to expect from those organisations and the museum community in general.

The museums sanctioned by the AAMD articulated clearly that their choice was between closing and using proceeds of deaccessioning to stay alive. The risk of censure and sanctions does not matter in the face of an existential threat.

Not only do sanctions fail as a deterrent, they have little effect afterwards. Within months of the imposition of sanctions against the Berkshire Museum, an AAMD member museum ignored the sanction and requested a loan for an upcoming exhibition. The Berkshire Museum was also offered, without restriction, a collection of art valued at over $1 million from a private donor, and it raised more in cash donations in the year after the sanctions than in any year before. When asked if he would like the AAMD to remove the sanctions in light of the recent statement, the museums president, Ethan S. Klepetar, replied: “It doesnt really matter. They make absolutely no difference to the Berkshire Museum.”

The AAMD must know that censure and sanctions are ineffectual threats. It undoubtedly foresaw that its principles would be ignored as museums try to find their way through the financial fallout of the pandemic. Its statement is a pre-emptive move to avoid irrelevancy. In the process, though, the AAMD has unequivocally acknowledged that normal principles are not applicable in all circumstances.

Should it matter what is causing the existential threat? According to the AAMDs statement, the new resolutions “were proposed in recognition of the extensive negative effects of the current crisis on the operations and balance sheets of many art museums—and the uncertain timing for a museums operations, fundraising, and revenue streams to return to normal.”

But wait. A “current crisis on the operations and balance sheets.” Isnt that exactly what was going on at Randolph College, the Delaware Art Museum and the Berkshire Museum when they embarked on their respective deaccessioning plans? Should it matter if the cause of the crisis is a pandemic or the loss of major employers in the region, a declining demographic and donor base, or a series of unfortunate decisions by staff or board?

The Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby was less than subtle in observing:

“In other words, now that the wolf is at their door, [AAMD President Brent] Benjamin and his colleagues approve of deaccessioning as a survival strategy. When it was merely the Berkshire Museum that was threatened, they treated it as a cultural crime. The stink of hypocrisy is enough to make you gag.”

Going forward, it will be extremely hard for the AAMD–or anyone else–to pass judgment on a museums decision in the face of any existential threat.

Once there is a “proof of concept” that the proceeds of deaccessioning may be used for other purposes than new acquisitions and collection care in these circumstances, in what other circumstances may they be used and to what other purposes may they be applied? This is the discussion that the AAMD has implicitly invited.

The answer to that question is where this development explodes with possibility. As noted by the art lawyer Donn Zaretsky in ARTnews: “After this, no one should ever again be able to argue with a straight face that there is only one good use of deaccessioning proceeds. We now know with certainty that isnt the case. The AAMD itself just told us so.”

A lively discussion on the use of deaccessioning proceeds has been underway for years before the pandemic. In a 2018 interview with the podcast In Other Words, Glenn D. Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, proposed that the proceeds from deaccessioning could be used to fund an endowment restricted to purposes other than collections–public programmes, exhibitions and publications.

In an essay in the book For Love or Money: Confronting the State of Museum Salaries (2019), Michael OHare and Jodi Kovach posit that if MoMA or the Art Institute of Chicago sold the bottom 1% of their collections and put the proceeds in an endowment, they could increase their instructional and academic staff budget by 20%. Imagine if museums applied some of the proceeds to rehiring staff they laid off as a result of the pandemic instead.

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