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The Gray Market: Why We Shouldn’t Punish Small Museums for Deaccessioning

18 October 2017

From Artnet News:

On Tuesday, a pair of influential institutional groups chastised Massachusetts’s Berkshire Museum over its plans to auction 40 of the roughly 2,400 works in its permanent collection to replenish its endowment and fund an architectural expansion. And the righteous indignation on display once again resurrected one of my favorite double standards in the nonprofit space.

To review, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) contend that their member institutions should only deaccession—see: release and resell—artworks in their holdings for the express purpose of either acquiring new works or, in the AAM’s case, caring for existing works. Flip pieces for any other reason—no matter how dire the financial circumstances—and affiliated museums are almost certain to face sanctions, most often in the form of being temporarily blacklisted from receiving artwork loans from members in good standing.

In a joint statement, the AAM and AAMD argued that the Berkshire’s decision to consign works by the likes of Albert Bierstadt, Alexander Calder, and Norman Rockwell to Sotheby’s “sends a message to existing and prospective donors that museums can raise funds by selling parts of their collection, thereby discouraging not only financial supporters, who may feel that their support isn’t needed, but also donors of artworks and artifacts, who may fear that their cherished objects could be sold at any time to the highest bidder to make up for a museum’s budget shortfalls.”

It’s an ideologically pure, dependably crowd-pleasing position to take. Its naiveté also makes me want to start throwing large objects long distances out high windows.

. . . .

[T]here are many collectors who gift works to museums because they genuinely want those works to benefit the masses. I applaud these people until my hands are numb from the striking, and always will. In their case, the AAM and AAMD’s stance is defensible.

However, there are also many collectors who gift works to museums in large part TO TRANSFORM THEM INTO disposable financial assets. Remember, in the US, single collectors can donate artworks to institutions for tax deductions equal to said works’ appraisable value. So if a massive write-off would be useful in your accountant’s eyes, what better way to “earn” it than to flip a piece or two to an eager museum with the help of a willing appraiser or a few outsize auction results?

In fact, for a recent example, we need to look no further than one of the week’s other big stories: a Canadian government review board’s decision to deny “culturally significant” status to a would-be gift of over 2,000 Annie Leibovitz photographs to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia—likely because, per a source for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the panel saw the donation as a huge “tax grab.”

Link to the rest at Artnet News

PG isn’t going to turn TPV into a visual arts law blog, but his examination of the Visual Artists Rights Act in a post yesterday took him down a deaccessioning hole.

Just when PG is convinced his legal career has shown him all the major variations of the disputes of humankind, an unfamiliar disagreement shows up on his screen.

The next time Mrs. PG decrees that PG’s lair is too cluttered and some of his junk will have to go, he’ll schedule a Garage Deaccessioning to attract higher class collectors.

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3 Comments to “The Gray Market: Why We Shouldn’t Punish Small Museums for Deaccessioning”

  1. At some point in the next five years, I’ll be making a donation to a museum. Dad was a typesetter for the “Stars and Stripes”, the G.I. newspaper, during WW2. He sent a copy of each newspaper he worked on home to his parents, which they kept in the steamer trunk my grandfather emigrated from England with. That trunk, stuffed with the newspapers, has passed to me. Once I retire and have time to catalog them and read some, they will go to a WW2 museum in Natick MA (the big one in New Orleans not being interested in them). If that museum ever gave them away or sold them, I suppose I’d be disappointed. But, once I give them to the museum, it’s theirs to do with what they want. I’ll have no say over it. That’s a price of giving.

    • As opposed to archives, where some collections are under the donor’s control for generations. In one case I almost had to get written permission from the heir to the estate to cite a letterhead that mentioned what kinds of well drilling the donor’s company did. Happily for me, the chief archivist went through the archive’s files and decided that the letterhead would be considered a public document since letters had been sent outside the company, and so I could cite it without needing express permission.

  2. Interesting. Museums selling their art became a big issue when Detroit was going through bankruptcy. Some factions were dead set on forcing the Detroit Institute of Arts to just auction off their collection to pay for the shortfall in pensions** for the city’s workers.

    The DIA kept pointing out This Is Not Done in the museum world (not to mention that for several items it wouldn’t even be legal). But this article makes the point that small museums could perhaps get away with it.

    **If you read about the 13th check practice you’ll understand why the DIA should not have been the one on the hook for the pension shortfall of Detroit’s city workers.

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