Who Gets to Decide When and Why a Museum Sells?
Donn Zaretsky who writes the ArtLawBlog limns two points made by the President of the Association of American Museums as part of the increasing posturing surrounding who can and cannot sell artworks currently owned by museums:
1. “With a private collection, you may be able to see it today, but you have no assurance that you will see it tomorrow. With a museum, you have the assurance that its collection will be available to the community for generations to come.”
Assuming, of course, the museum doesn’t go under. And what if the work is sold to another museum? Doesn’t that dispose of this objection? Do we have more assurance that works owned by the National Academy will be available to the community than we would if the same works were owned by, say, the Crystal Bridges Museum?
2. “An analogy we use is that allowing a museum to trade its collection to cover operating debts would be like allowing a financial fiduciary, such as a bank, to raid assets it holds in a trust to cover a hole in its own balance sheet. This would be inconceivable. It should be equally inconceivable for a museum to raid the assets placed in trust with it.”
This is an interesting sounding analogy, but is it right? Do museums have the same relationship to the works in their collections as banks do to the assets they hold for their customers? Museums aren’t holding the works in trust for someone else. They own them. I’m not sure it’s a useful way of looking at things to say that the works belong to “the people” and are merely “held” by the museum. For one thing, what people? The people of a particular city? State? Nation? And even if you do think of it this way, what would be wrong with a sale between two New York museums — say the National Academy sold to the Met? Wouldn’t that just be like the bank moving my money from one of my accounts to another?
Trust Me (ArtLawBlog)