We’re long since past the point of rational discussion of the issue of deaccessioning of art work. This story in the Wall Street Journal isn’t going to make that possible either.
The Montclair Art Museum seems to be following Brandeis down the road of selling artwork to preserve an institution that can’t withstand a serious retreat in the markets. That these institutions got themselves over-extended is the story of our century. But the response to their choices is clouded and confused by shibboleths about art and the so-called “public trust.”
Central to this confusion is the assumption that a sale of artwork is tantamount to its destruction. Here’s James Panero cataloguing the Montclair Art Museum’s many sales and deaccessions:
In the stewardship of its permanent collection, however, Montclair has left a more questionable legacy. The museum has often treated its record of local philanthropy as trade-in art. Nobody knows this better than Cherry Provost, a former trustee who grew up in the shadow of this suburban museum and still serves on the art committee.
“I’ve said it repeatedly: A museum is not a private collection,” she maintains. Over the years, her words fell on deaf ears as the museum sold off one part of its collection after another. “We had a snuff bottle collection of the first order,” Mrs. Provost says. “I tried to save it. We also had a fabulous collection of early American and English silver — to die for! And we had some lovely sideboards. Really good American antiques. And it was wonderful to have a sideboard. Well, the sideboard went.”
That wasn’t all. This past January, the museum shipped off its 6,000-volume art library as a gift to a local college, Montclair State University — one of its many emergency actions, which include layoffs and reduced business hours, designed to shore up expenses. The museum says it also plans to sell its costume and rug collections and is determining what to do with its sizable Native American holdings.
What Mr. Panero doesn’t point out is that on the other side of each sale is a steward. Indeed, one reason art should be sold when it is deaccessioned, not donated, is that the buyer will have every reason to protect and preserve it. The telling part of this litany is where Panero equates donating a library to a local college with unpleasant acts like layoffs. Is the problem that the local college would be a bad steward of the library?
If so, why should we wait until these institutions reach the crisis point before raising the alarm? Doesn’t the country need a museum version of the FDIC that can seize and re-organize poorly managed arts organizations before they’re forced to sell work to meet their budgets? If so, shouldn’t there be a Federal body that rationalizes the nations museums to make sure that all Americans have equal access to their national patrimony? Why not have art circulate throughout the country so that regions not wealthy enough to support the arts can benefit equally as places like New York and Chicago? In fact, why is art considered private property at all? Shouldn’t the government prevent private ownership of cultural treasures?
Since we’re not prepared to follow the evolution of these ideas, perhaps we should stick closer to the pressing matters in Montclair and Waltham. The leaders of the Montclair Art Museum and Brandeis University should be held accountable for their stewardship of those institutions. The donors, patrons and stakeholders in those institutions have every right to be angry about these sales.
But the broadest sense of the public is not greatly deprived by these sales. As long as the works of art are cared for and preserved, posterity’s insterest is served. Isn’t it?
Another Museum Puts Its Collection on the Block (Wall Street Journal)