By Steven Miller, Guest Blogger
Barring loss of life, perhaps the most alarming tragedy museums fear is collection destruction. We recoil at the thought of objects disappearing from cherished public repositories of our shared culture. Diligent museums focus considerable attention on protecting the art, artifacts and scientific specimens in their possession.
To be sure, in spite of the best protective measures, losses happen. A few horrible examples include: The thirteen works of art stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, in 1990; the looting of the Baghdad Museum during the Iraq War in 2003; the recent fire and destruction at the National Museum of Brazil. Fortunately, these museum catastrophes tend to be exceptional. Statistically, most of the things most museums own are relatively safe. Or so we thought.
In May the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) sold a large painting by the Jewish Russian émigré Mark Rothko (1903-1970). The action was legal and approved by the institution’s board of trustees. At auction the picture realized $43.75M ($50.1M with fees). Where’s the Rothko now? Auction houses, in this case, Sotheby’s, understandably do not reveal bidder information.
Whether by sale, gifts, or trashing, the disposal of museum collections is almost as old as museums. Today unrestricted selling on the open market is highly popular. Or, perhaps it simply enjoys the most notoriety. The SFMOMA incident is only a recent example. This subtraction choice raises a large question in my mind. What preservation responsibilities do museums have for pieces they deaccession? Once something is on the auction block, for example, chances are good it will leave the protected public realm forever, lost as a document held for years in public trust on behalf of past, present and future generations.
The sale of museum collections on the open market seems a civic tragedy. This arena of private commerce is not devoted to preserving things for public benefit. An argument can be made that anyone paying $50.1M for something has a vested interest in keeping it safe. But who knows? The secret world of art wheeling and dealing destroys scores of paintings with varnish and wax relining–no doubt to the horror of artists like Picasso and Braque–or through neglect or ignorance.
It is interesting the gusto with which deaccessioning is now embraced by museums who rarely (ever?) express concern for the physical well-being of what leaves the collection. How does this reflect what Steven Lubar writes in his excellent book: Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present, [Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, London, England, 2017, p. 137]. “When museums collect things, they take on ethical obligations not only to the communities those objects come from, or are meaningful to, but also to the objects themselves.” Does this suggest why deaccessioning still elicits loud criticism? Does it suggest why complaints always come from outside the museum world?
Controversies about museum deaccessioning inevitably focus on boards of trustees as they make final departure decisions for pieces deemed no longer a fit. Questions are asked: Why don’t the trustees pony up whatever money is needed in a particular circumstance? Is the museum in financial duress? Why not sell things to another museum, thus keeping the piece and its records altruistically preserved? What recourse do scholars have when seeking information about lost collections? How do donors respond to the loss of their gifts? Aside from a convenient tax deduction, who will donate to a place for which collections are money in the bank to be raided at will?
Years ago I wrote a piece called “Guilt-Free Deaccessioning” for the American Association of Museums’ magazine Museum News (now Museum) about the advantages of deaccessioning by inter-museum transfer. Today I would use a different title: Win, Win, Win, Win Deaccessioning. Why? Because the museum removing an item presumably wins with its departure, the museum getting the object wins by its acquisition, the object wins by surviving, and the public wins with continued access. Inter-museum transfer happens. I hope it becomes a first-choice option rather than an afterthought. It will certainly reduce the growing notion that all museum collections can be purchased.
A Bard College graduate, Steven Miller has been in the museum field for nearly five decades as a curator, director, trustee, writer, critic, and consultant. A curator with the Museum of the City of New York for sixteen years, he subsequently administered and directed five regional history museums. He also taught in several graduate museum studies programs including sixteen years with the Seton Hall University MA Program in Museum Professions. He received a Graduate Certificate in the Principles of Conservation Science, International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, Rome, Italy. He is the author of The Anatomy of a Museum: An Insider’s Text, Wiley, 2018; Deaccessioning Today: Theory and Practice, Rowman & Littlefield, 2018; and How to Get a Museum Job: An Inside Perspective, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019. Deaccessioning is a subject that has long intrigued him.
Image: Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1960; 69 x 50 in.; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, acquired through a gift of Peggy Guggenheim; © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York; photo: Katherine Du Tiel
We begin by expressing our sadness and dismay over the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s decision allowing the Berkshire Museum to sell its paintings. Kudos to Berkshire Eagle reporter Larry Parnass for his dogged reporting, and applause for AAM and AAMD for their quick and direct response to the the ruling. Deaccessioning is not illegal. It exists for a reason. It’s also possible for a museum or heritage organization to change focus and mission. In the Berkshire Museum’s case, leadership seemed to say we’re in crisis, but we also don’t want to be who we’ve been, so we’re going to sell our heritage, become something different, and never have to fund raise again. There is a tangled web of leadership questions here. We hope that over the coming months, AAM and AAMD create safety nets for directors who find themselves with boards who want to sell their museum’s prime pieces and cite the Berkshire Museum as their example.
Say the word diversity and most people think race. But as we’ve said frequently on these pages, diversity actually means variety. Colleagues with identifiable differences produce a better more creative product than a homogeneous team. And age is another piece in the diversity puzzle. That means that while it’s critical to have staff of color and LGBTQ staff at the table, it’s also good to mix the very young with the long-tenured. Why? Because since you serve a diverse and changing community and few communities are homogeneous when it comes to age.
And yet, organizations sometimes fail to look at older staff as anything other than a liability. They command high(er) salaries, they have opinions–sometimes too many–and you know someday they’ll retire, but the waiting is driving you crazy. In fact, it’s no surprise that when CFOs and directors look at longtime staff they see dollar signs because in financial terms they represent money that could be saved or better yet divided between multiple new positions.
So what’s the big deal? These folks will retire anyway, and goodness knows there’s a line around the museum workspace of Gen Xers and Millennials waiting to move up. First, it’s hard to generalize. Perhaps you know staff who are genuine fossils, whose sole reason for working is to cross the Medicare finish line. But what about the ones who’ve stored away a wealth of organizational history and narrative? The ones who know where you’ll find all the information you need. Or what about staff who, despite their greying hair, have reached a place overflowing with creativity? Or what about geezers who are models and mentors for younger staff? Is it equitable to let age be the only determinant?
Younger employees sometimes face a similar situation. They don’t get hired because they don’t have any experience, and they don’t have any experience because they don’t get hired. And then, when they are hired, particularly if they’re women, they are frequently patronized and talked over which means they are not taken seriously, which makes it harder to move forward.
The point is only that diversity is about variety. It is about making your staff reflect your community, and it is about understanding and acknowledging that a diversity of lived experience makes for better chemistry and more creativity around the table. (Don’t believe us? Read McKinsey’s 2018 report on Diversity.) A diverse team also makes a group more aware of its own biases because interaction with staff who are younger, older, LGBTQ or people of color challenges entrenched beliefs at work where everyone shares (hopefully) a common goal.
It may be a lame metaphor, but if you need an image for diversity at its best, remember the Muppets. Yes, The Muppets. I heard Frank Oz talk about their back stories Saturday, and one line stuck with me. He said all the Muppets are very different, flawed characters–even Kermit–and yet they made music, had adventures and looked out for one another. You could do worse than to have staff members as different as Miss Piggy and Floyd Pepper.
It’s been six months since the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA announced its New Vision , and then dropped the other shoe, telling the public that the cost of the new vision would be underwritten by selling 40 paintings from its collection. And for more than 182 days, the museum world has been in an uproar. If you played a word association game, and the words were Berkshire Museum, way too many of us would respond with “deaccessioning.”
We wrote about the controversy months ago when it seemed the sale was imminent. Since last summer, deaccessioning’s become a new word, something parsed by journalists and art critics alike who tried to explain that even though the use of proceeds from deaccessioned items is not a law (except for New York State Education Department-chartered museums and historical societies) or even a rule, it’s a professional standard museums are expected to live by and with. And while Nina Simon may be correct, that use of proceeds from deaccessioning is an inflexible and antiquated standard, for those museums that are collecting institutions, it functions like the nuclear deterrent, holding big and small institutions in check, a necessary yet Faustian gamble that collecting institutions buy into. And here’s the logic behind that antiquated standard: Museums are non-profit organizations because they hold property (often collections) in the public trust. If those same collections can be monetized at the drop of a hat, where’s the trust?
As a museum, your non-profit status is, in part, secured by your organization’s willingness to stand behind your mission, and in doing so, make objects, art and the like available to all of us. So like Nina Simon, we believe the Berkshire Museum controversy is not an issue solely about deaccessioning. It’s about leadership. Why? Because the Museum’s deaccessioning is a by-product of a series of decisions made by the board and director. It’s the story of a local, regional and national community who responded negatively, not only to the proposed sale, but also to the move toward a museum far more committed to science and technology than to art and the gentle “Window on the World” concept of its founder.
Granted, we only know what the Berkshire Museum has shared on its website, but when organizations anticipate change they examine the future like master chess players, thinking through as best as they are able, all the consequences of their actions. How did the the Museum’s 21-member board and its director get this so wrong, producing such a firestorm of antipathy?
If you read the Berkshire Museum’s timeline for its Master Planning Process, you discover that together with Hancock Shaker Village, it hired TDC, a Boston-based firm specializing in non-profit management three years ago. It was TDC’s 2015 report that stipulated “significant need for capitalization in order to provide sufficient endowment for the Berkshire Museum to support its operations.” (Side note: Among the eight principals on TDC’s website, not one has an arts background, much less a museum background.) And it was TDC who hired Experience Design out of Providence, RI, “to help identify scenarios for the Museum’s future and produce an interpretive plan for the scenario ultimately selected.” Again, we don’t know the real story, only what the Museum chooses to write, but based on its website, there is an odd distance between the Museum and its community. And neither the New Vision nor the Planning Process Timeline express much joy or love for the elegant Renaissance Revival building or its contents.
So what lessons can we learn from this as yet unfinished drama? Here are five thoughts for board members and directors to consider. We don’t know whether they apply in this situation, but we offer them nonetheless.
Being a board member–and some would argue being a museum director–is about service, collective work to safeguard, interpret, collections, ideas and living things for and with the public. Lesson 1: Know your institution. If the only places you know how to find at your museum are the board room and the restroom, you don’t know enough. Learn the campus. Find the furnace room. See collections storage. Know whether exhibit design is done on site or somewhere else. Know the staff by name. Know the important pieces, places, and their stories.
Remember in serving and protecting the institution, you serve your community which may be local, regional, national or international. Lesson 2: Know your community. If you have questions about who participates at your museum, ask them. Remember, you need to know three things: Who your community is as a whole; who comes to your museum and most importantly who doesn’t. If you are considering a change, will it serve those who love your organization and make those who are indifferent into friends? If not, why not?
Don’t believe that an absence of affirmation means your community doesn’t care. To quote Joni Mitchel sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone. Lesson 3: Be a good communicator. Individually, but most importantly collectively, boards need to communicate clearly and well. If you’re on the board, and you don’t understand something, how will the public understand? Just because a board operates as a collective body doesn’t mean it can’t (and shouldn’t) engage in vigorous discussion around change.
Trust is something that’s earned. Lesson 4: Trust your community. To trust them, you have to know them. (See Lesson 2). That means if you hire consultants on a planning project, you have to provide them with every bit of knowledge you have, and let the chips fall where they may. It means if your hope to change your institution depends on the sale of much loved pieces, you need to say that.
And the last lesson? If you’re asked to serve on a board, believe in the institution that’s asking. Anything else is like buying a house you intend to tear down.
Tell us how your board faces the big decisions.