Donn Zaretsky is an art lawyer and the author of the Art Law Blog. He’s been a vocal questioner of the logic surrounding so many of the constraints on museums imposed by commentators, journalists and professional organizations. Key to many of the arguments for controlling what institutions can do is a rarely questioned concept that art in museums is held in a “public trust.” Here, citing Breaking Views commentary on art collections held by bailed out banks, Zaretsky tries to work his way to the bottom of the public trust issue:
It is sometimes suggested that this is a function of the favorable tax treatment museums receive: because museums are exempt from property and income taxes, and donors get tax deductions for contributing to them, the “public” therefore is the true owner of the art. I’ve never really understood that argument. There are lots of other entities that get the same tax benefits — churches. private schools and universities, hospitals, etc. Does the public own the MRI machines at the hospital? If a university decides to shut down the sociology department, should we step in and say, “Hey, wait a minute. That department was held in trust for us. You can’t just get rid of it like that”? Does every asset ostensibly held by every non-profit really belong to us? And if not, what makes art different? How does it come to be “held in trust” when other, similarly-owned assets are not?
Bailed Out Art (The Art Law Blog)