Timothy Rub runs the Philadelphia Museum which stands hard by the Barnes Collection now. Perhaps the proximity to a collection of art that is frozen forever has unduly caused Rub to fetishize all museum collections. His piece the Wall Street Journal criticizing the Delaware Museum’s decision to sell four works of art to pay off construction loans and repair its endowment is built upon the idea that museums have something monolithic and complete called a collection.
But if it is okay for a museum to acquire works and sell works to acquire others, it would suggest that museum collections are dynamic, evolving bodies that are never complete or intact. Rub also seems to have decided that the works being sold by the Delaware museum fundamentally damage the museum’s mission. That may be so, but he makes no case for why that may be:
You don’t cut out the heart to cure the patient; and yet this was the remedy chosen by Delaware’s trustees to restore their institution to good health. Regrettably, they seem not to have understood their broader responsibility to care for all of the museum’s assets—most significantly, its collection.
Not-for-profits have long used fund accounting to segregate different types of financial assets, most notably endowments and restricted operating funds, which should not be commingled. The same discipline should be applied to a museum’s collection, which deserves to be treated as a separate asset that is equal—or, many would argue, even greater—in value to any other and not as a medium of exchange.
Segregating the art as an asset certainly makes sense in all but the most extreme circumstances (and Delaware’s may have been such a circumstance, its board certainly thought so.) Rub disagrees and here his logic takes some odd turns. He praises the American Folk Art Museum for moving out of its building when faced with a financial crisis but omits the court-ordered sale of 228 museum works to satisfy a benefactor’s bankruptcy.
On the other hand, we should take some comfort in the decision recently made by the trustees of another museum who believed that protecting the integrity of its collection was their highest priority. Faced with an ill-advised expansion that burdened it with a crushing debt load, the Folk Art Museum in New York sold its relatively new building and chose to do what had hitherto been considered unimaginable: continuing to operate on a much smaller scale, but with its collection intact. This was, to be sure, not a pretty picture; but the outcome was preferable to all of the other alternatives that the trustees considered and gave the museum the greatest chance of prospering once again in the future.
Finally, we get to the most absurd extension of all where the museum’s collection becomes like the old philosophy riddle, a tree falling in the wilderness:
Some years ago, in a conversation with several colleagues, Philippe de Montebello observed that the Metropolitan Museum of Art—simply by virtue of the significance of its collection—was, and would remain, a great museum even if it never welcomed another visitor through its doors