Thursday, January 29, 2009

CAA Denounces Brandeis' Fire Sale, and Specters of "Deaccession"

The College Art Association has just sent out an e-blast denouncing Brandeis University's decision to close The Rose Art Museum and sell its entire collection in order to raise funds to be used for general operating expenses. Although the CAA letter does not mention the word "deaccessioning" once, it does directly cite the AAMD's Code of Ethics, which "clearly state that works of art in museum collections are held as a public trust and that any proceeds of sales must only support the acquisition of new works."

The College Art Association (CAA) was shocked and dismayed to learn of the decision by Brandeis University to close the Rose Art Museum and sell its entire art collection for operating revenue.

CAA supports the Codes of Ethics of the American Association of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors, which clearly state that works of art in museum collections are held as a public trust and that any proceeds of sales must only support the acquisition of new works. However, perceiving an entire art collection as a disposable financial asset and then dismantling that collection wholesale to cover other university expenses is deeply troubling for all college and university collections.

The AAMD has a report from November of 2007 where they state:

The process of adding objects to a museum collection is known as acquisition. The counterpart of acquisition is deaccessioning, the practice by which an art museum formally transfers its ownership of an object to another institution or individual by sale, exchange, or grant, or disposes of an object if its physical condition is so poor that it has no aesthetic or academic value.

Deaccessioning is practiced to refine and enhance the quality, use, and character of an institution’s holdings. There are two fundamental principles that are always observed whenever an AAMD member art museum deaccessions an object:

The decision to deaccession is made solely to improve the quality, scope, and appropriateness of the collection, and to support the mission and long-term goals of the museum;

Proceeds from a deaccessioned work are used only to acquire other works of art—the proceeds are never used as operating funds, to build a general endowment, or for any other expenses. Funds from deaccessioning can be invested in an acquisitions endowment earmarked to support the long-term growth of a museum’s collection.

Now, I understand Donn's argument that this is not a "deaccession" in its proper sense, and although both Carol Vogel and Randy Kennedy do not site that word in their lengthy NY Times article once, I will attempt a somewhat humorous argument.

Vogel and Kennedy do cite Fisk University and Randolph College as two examples where "smaller colleges and univesities" have drawn controversy over similar attempts to sell-off some of its art works. I believe most bloggers writing on deaccessioning, including my good friend Donn, have clearly indicated these two situations as "deaccessioning." Thus, it is quite clear that Vogel and Kennedy's decision to omit the word "deaccession" is but a timid gestural magic trick meant to imply deaccession without actually taking on the responsibility of calling the Brandeis act what it is: a deaccession. The house is haunted, and the specter of deaccession looms large.

An example. If an individual (say, an ex-con) sells a kilo of cocaine from a streetcorner, and this individual is convicted of trafficking in narcotics (possession with intent for example), it would be quite logical to label this individual a "drug dealer." However, if the same individual selling a kilo of cocaine were not an ex-con but rather, say, a Wall Street CEO, I do not (logically) believe we would then call this second individual a "seller of goods." That the AAMD defines deaccession in a narrow sense, limited to art institutions, is simply that, the AAMD's definition.

Let me make myself clear. I am not arguing here for or against the (im)propriety of Brandeis University's decision to close The Rose Art Museum or its decision to sell off all of the artwork in order to raise operating funds. I am simply arguing that the Brandeis case is not one of semantics. The larger and more important issue trifurcates into one of ethics, law, and economics.

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