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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Seattle Art Museum to Publish a List of The Art It Sloughs Off

Posted by on September 14 at 5:00 AM

A few weeks back I wrote a column urging the Seattle Art Museum to reconsider its policy against publishing a list of its deaccessions. (“Deaccessions” is a big word referring to artworks that the museum gets rid of because they are in poor condition or otherwise deemed unfit for the permanent collection.)

It sounds counterintuitive that a museum would want to give up art, but there are often good reasons for doing so. Still, I wrote, the process should be public because the collection is essentially a public trust.

Yesterday, SAM director Mimi Gates told me that SAM has decided to change its policy, and to start publishing a list of deaccessions in its annual report every year. “It’s never come up as an issue before,” she said. “We want to be open and perfectly honest, and we try to be transparent as times change. I had to think it through, but it makes perfect sense.” (Who says journalism can’t change the world?)

Do other museums publish deaccessions lists? I didn’t know where to go to ask, so I checked in with Culturegrrl blogger Lee Rosenbaum, a veteran in the field of art reporting and writing. She responded:

I know of only one that does so, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it does so under an agreement forged with the NY State Attorney General’s office, after the AG investigated some famously problematic Met deaccessions back in the 1970s. The Met only reports the sales of art over a certain dollar value, and that threshold has risen over the years to $50,000. … There may be others who do this, but I don’t know of them. None that I know of publish advance lists of works that they propose to sell from their collections, although auction catalogues obviously provide an advance heads-up on works that aren’t sold privately. I understand why museums don’t want to publish such lists: The sale of anything important is sure to provoke controversy. To which I respond: If there are good arguments against selling a work, then let them be heard before the loss to the public patrimony is irrevocable.

If SAM were the first art museum in the country to voluntarily publish its deaccessions list in its annual report, that would really be something to applaud. Anybody know any other museums that do this?

Still, Culturegrrl’s point is important: it’s healthier, and more important, to announce intentions instead of past deeds. Will SAM consider this? If not, why not? That’s a question I’ve put to Gates just a few minutes ago via email.

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In either case, kudos to SAM, and to The Stranger for encouraging a useful change.

I agree Jen, Culturgrrl's point is important.

"The sale of anything important is sure to provoke controversy."

Is controversy a topic for chat over wine and cheese (or twinkies if you're an edgy gallery owner)? Something to write in blogmedium?

Very controversial times we live in, Lee.
Is this a good argument against reading Culturegrrl?
Is this an annoucement? I intended nothing but...

I have no particular opinion about announcements before deaccession. It makes some common sense to me. But I don't follow the art biz enough to have an opinion worth very much.

But what I find interesting to consider is a drift in which there remains little left of "private institutions." Sure, SAM is public-supported in that it is non-profit and gains from tax-deductible donations etc. So do many institutions. Are we going to require that all such organizations offer "public notice" -- with a comment period and impliedly an appeal period -- before major actions? What about before initial accession? Should, as a related example, the estimable Trust for Public Land (TPL) also be required to disclose its potential deals before they happen?

There is such a thing as "private" and if we degrade it by requiring private institutions to disclose its plan on strategic matters -- what it wants to sell and maybe then even buy -- we may find surprsing and unpleasant results. I acknowledge that there are abuses of the law by art museums and by land bank groups such as TPL. But those are abuses of the law -- and I wonder if we want to start requiring private 'charitiable' organizations to disclose their plans before the fact.

I have no clear answer but I don't think the issue is quite as clear as "disclosure beforehand is a good idea."

I find myself agreeing with Mr. Sucher.

SAM isn't a part of city government - it's an independent non-profit corporation.

I've lately become interested myself in non-profit governance, in particular with respect to the sometimes handsome salaries those in charge get paid, especially in Seattle.

If you become a "member" of a non-profit by contributing money, do you have any say in their governance? Are their annual meetings where members have their say on vote on matters of controversy?

Or is it all a rich person's club run by hand-picked non-profit boards chummy with the directors they hire?

erratum: "Are there annual meetings where members have their say and vote on matters of controversy?"

David Sucher, really interesting post. Just how public nonprofit institutions such as art museums are is a live question. And as you see from New Urbanism's post, the desire to acknowledge that museums are not open-book government agencies is countered by the desire to demand accountability fueled by suspicion that museums are closed-doors "rich person's club(s)."

When we're talking about how art goes into and out of the permanent collection, the museum ought to be able to explain itself publicly, and probably can. The so-called "controversies" are likely to be few and far between in Seattle. But if we know what's going on, we understand better how museums work and think.

Plus, museums that open up their deaccessions plans are under no obligation to change their minds about a deaccession if they do not find the public sentiment convincing, provided they are following the guidelines set down by the Association of American Museum Directors. This is not the same thing as giving the public a seat on the board.

But maybe you can say more about your feeling that nonprofit corporate privacy needs protecting. Why?

"...nonprofit corporate privacy needs protecting. Why?"

Well at the outset I am simply exploring/playing with the issues and I don't have any firm conclusions. Honest.

But in general I do think that privacy needs protection and that the lines are not very bright. Must SAM and TPL (both basically good organizations) work in the public interest? Of course. Should they have a level of transparency which would not expect from a publicly-traded business (much less a privately-held one i.e. limited stockholders)? Yes, absolutely. Should such groups issue reports AFTER the fact? probably so. Should such groups be required to open their board meetings to public scrutiny on all matters? Ah...that's a different issue. (And I am NOT saying that that's is what you are suggesting, Jen. I am simply looking at scenarios to imagine how these sorts of things play out.)

All I am saying is that in the case of TPL, I believe that it would be a mistake to force it to announce its sales strategy in advance. And probably the same for SAM and other museums. But after the fact? Sure. No problem there. The issue is simply how much public oversight (formal and informal) should there be in private non-profits? And I have no strong opinion so far. I'd have to hear all the sides etc etc

As a former museum director, I would agree with Mimi Gates that transparency is always a good policy, whether in for-profit or non-profit educational institutions. The idea of announcing prospective deaccessions (and the curatorial rationale) is on the surface a good idea. But it is not that simple. We should not forget that there is a mechanism for community oversight of all museum activities --including acquisitions and deaccessionsing-- and that is its board of trustees. Trustees are accountable to the public for everything from a museum's financial health to its program and acquisition policies.

But once a board of trustees is in place, the public should not needlessly interfere with a boards work, unless they are willing to do the work entailed in responsible oversight.

This means attending many meetings, reading briefings, studying and fully understanding the materials (whether fiancial or artistic) that will be presented and voted upon, and of course a willingness to take serious fiduciary responsibility for a large, complex business such an an art museum. In the matter of de-accessioning that would entail seriously knowing the museum's collection and having a deep understanding of the context surrounding the decision to get rid of a work, the most ethically responsible ways to dispose of it.

Museum trustees should be responsible to a wide range of constituencies including members, scholars, artists, and general visitors --and generally they are.

If a pattern of negligence appears, then it is the community's responsibility to challenge the trustees, but unless such a pattern is perceived, the community should take comfort (and be grateful) that a group of unpaid men and women are working hard to represent their collective interests on their behalf.

I'll bet that a Harold Hollingsworth painting that is in the Musuem is on that deaccessions list. It's the Charlie Browniest.

Really, Harold? Hey, it's cool that you're in there in the first place, I guess. But they should pull some of that other crap off the wall and put yours up. I might even be tempted to go in and see it.

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