First Kudos: To Mike Murawski for his new book, Museums As Agents of Change, released this week and available through Routledge. A co-founder of Museums are not Neutral, Murawski is a change maker himself, which is just one of the reasons this book is important.
Second, a shout out to AAM. In February I wrote a post complaining about how AAM’s newly-released Trendswatch had sidestepped the ways the pandemic harmed working women globally, and specifically women in the museum world. This week while scrolling through an AAM newsletter, I came across a link to Supporting Women in the Workplace During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic. It takes a big-hearted organization to course-correct, so thank you to AAM for providing resources for 50.1-percent of the museum workforce. And if women’s issues within the museum world concern you, join Gender Equity in Museums or GEMM.
Third, a bravo to my friend Frank Vagnone: If museum directors had fans like boy bands, I would be lined up post-concert to see Frank, president and CEO of Old Salem, Inc. Thoughtful, smart, and someone known to push the envelope on occasion, Vagnone writes the blog Twisted Preservation. This week he posted about the need to see COVID for what it is–not an 18-month stop between normal and new normal–but an inflection point that will leave many organizations devastated and fundamentally changed. If you’re a museum or heritage organization leader, you should read his post, and maybe use it as a point of discussion with your board.
And the deaccessioning debate continues: I am struck by the way this debate has become a binary choice. You’re either for it–a progressive–or against it or at least cautious about it–a traditionalist. And like all things in 2021, deacessioning is personalized, becoming a lens with a bifurcated view of the art museum world because, let’s face it, history and science museums aren’t making millions deaccessioning.
Lee Rosenbaum went so far as to metaphorically pit Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, opposite Phillipe de Montebello, former director of the Met, writing that Bedford is among “the new crop of museum directors and curators [who] have embraced social and political progressiveness as a primary part of their mission.” Rosenbaum suggests that “inclusivity and social relevance are laudable” but cautions “patience so museums don’t trash the time-honored achievements of past professionals.”
Where to start? Maybe with the idea that as I said a few weeks ago, deaccessioning is a tool in a tool box, a necessary one, but one that in order to wield successfully, needs a deep collection, a degree of wisdom and sophistication on the part of curators and museum leadership, and a strong community understanding. Second, that it’s possible for smart, thoughtful, forward-thinking organizations to hold two (or more) ideas in their heads at the same time–pruning and shaping the collection to help it better speak to the wider community–while also trying to create an equitable workspace that honors the values museums profess to support. Perhaps communities of color and museum staff are tired of waiting for museums who are afraid of trashing the time-honored path representing the way we’ve always done it?
When did putting community–whether that is your security guard’s hourly pay or your local community’s access to your collection– become a bad thing? Is it okay as long as it doesn’t privilege BIPOC artists over established white, male artists? Shouldn’t we all be modeling ofbyforall.org’s five steps for change? And how will change happen if our first act is to rush to the barricades defending what cannot change?
AAMD is like an exclusive gentleman’s club from the 1950’s. It costs money to belong, when you’re inside it seems powerful, but in reality its enforcement powers are limited. According to The New York Times, a recent vote on whether to codify the relaxed deaccessioning rules of COVID lost 91-88 with 48 members abstaining. Perhaps the 48 abstainers sided with MoMA’s Glenn Lowery who suggests this type of decision making shouldn’t happen in the middle of a crisis. And despite vaccines, and the falling number of COVID cases, we are still in a crisis.
And a lesson in humility: One of the lessons of leadership is that we continue learning. Always. Every day. And the day you stop, you should pack it in, and head for your rocking chair and your memories.
I manage a small collection inside a small, intentional community or a boarding school. Like any lone ranger, I wear the title “curator,” but many other hats –educator, registrar, packer, exhibit designer–as well. Our campus is still officially closed, but last week we hung an exhibit of 22 portraits, part of a project for our 9th and 10th-grade studio art students. Each student will select a portrait, reckon with it, react to it, and create a new work in response. When complete, the student work, curated and selected by their classmates, will hang in dialog next to the collection work. So far so good.
I finished the week with the show hung, but not the labels. I was tired, a lame excuse in retrospect, but nonetheless true, so I reasoned the labels could wait until Monday. Here is one of the portraits, a dual image of Mary Birch Coffing of Salisbury, Connecticut with Jane Winslow also of Salisbury.
In leaving the labels for another day, I forgot about my audience. I forgot they needed context, and most of all, in believing they could wait, I disrespected them. So when they reacted Friday evening about the portrait above via email and social media, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. They were concerned. They wanted information. By Saturday morning I’d reckoned with my own blindness and all the labels were up. Further, we’d reached out to students and offered to talk about the show as a whole, and the Coffing/Winslow portrait in particular.
The lesson for me was not just how a lone ranger needs to push through and finish what was started. It was about the obligation to empathize, to put oneself in the position of one’s audience, and try to imagine what tools are necessary to make their own judgements, to have their own dialog, their own reckoning. That’s all art asks of us: to be there; to be fully present for more than the 20-seconds most of us devote to standing in front of a painting. If that’s what we want from our viewers, then we have to give them a place to start that’s truthful but not opinionated, that leads to dialog not misunderstanding, and most of all that is respectful.
The good news is I know I’m still learning. I hope you are too.
Two news threads sparked the museum world’s collective consciousness last week: One, Charles Venable’s resignation from the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the second, the Metropolitan Museum’s announcement that it will take AAMD up on its COVID loophole, allowing art museums to put deaccession funds towards collections care as opposed to acquisitions. Both represent a tangle of hubris, classism, and self-importance that are sadly emblematic of the museum world in 2021.
For those who missed the Indianapolis debacle, it took place on the 100-plus acre museum campus known as Newfields. A year ago the Museum posted a position with the Oppenheim search firm, which included the line that the museum sought a director who would “maintain its core white audience.” The job announcement has been public for 10 months, but somehow only surfaced last week. That five word phrase may be the tip of an iceberg though. In July 2020, Keli Morgan, an associate curator who is Black, resigned barely two years into her tenure, citing the Museum’s toxic and discriminatory culture. Morgan’a resignation coupled with the horrendous job announcement makes you wonder. Couple that with Venable’s own strangely-worded response in an interview in The New York Times where he stops short of an apology, pointing to the use of “core white audience,” as intentional, meaning he wanted the white art museum audience to know the Museum wouldn’t abandon them. How do we unpack a situation where a 21st-century museum director felt the need to reassure its wealthy, privileged white audience? And in a job announcement whose primary audience isn’t the local community, donors or longtime audience, but presumably museum professionals most of whom are alert to the huge sea-change taking place in the field. The only good news was the Museum Board’s letter. In contrast to Venable’s waffling, the Board was contrite and direct, spelling out the changes it will take going forward. So what are the “tells” and take-aways in yet another blunder in pandemic museum leadership?
- While anecdotally at least more and more BIPOC staff are being hired for directorships and senior leadership, stories like this one demonstrate how deeply ingrained the culture of racism, hierarchy and patriarchy is in museum culture, particularly art museum culture.
- Clearly the Board knew where to turn to craft a statement that was authentic and apologetic, but where were they as their museum culture devolved? How many boards really understand their roles, not only the Byzantine non-profit rule variations from state to state, but what governance actually looks like? How many actually read AAM’s Core Documents?
- To quote President Truman, as a leader the buck stops with you. That said, you aren’t alone. The more eyes on decision making the better, including search firms you hire to speak for your museum. They represent your organization in the world so they must know you well, starting with your organizational values.
- The Internet is like a nuclear wasteland. Information may move around, but it never dies, and pretty much everything you’ve ever made public is available. Think about it.
- DEI isn’t only about hiring Black or Brown employees. It’s actually about white folks, seeped in privilege, doing the work, and that work is ongoing, not something you learn in a weekend workshop or by leaving White Fragility on your desk.
- Maybe this calls for a bold statement? Maybe the Indianapolis Museum of Art should take a page from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland and hire LaTanya Autry to help them re-center, bridge build, and create a new face for the museum? Now is the time for Indianapolis to prove it isn’t neutral.
The Metropolitan Museum made the news when it announced its $150 million deficit stemming from the pandemic. Many museums closed all or part of the last 12 months are in the red, but everything about the Met is huge and so is its debt. What was different about its announcement was the indication that it is in conversations with auction houses, and considering using the AAMD’s COVID window to utilize deaccessioning profits for direct care of collections. The announcement set social media tongues wagging. Why? Are people really worried the Met will deaccession something famous, well-known and much loved? Or is it because museums with gigantic endowments aren’t supposed to run a deficit? To quote Erin Richardson of Frank & Glory: “We can’t treat museums like we do Americans seeking public assistance – in that they must have liquidated all assets before receiving SNAP or welfare. Boards are fiduciaries not banks. Their role is to govern the organization on behalf of the public trust. Sometimes the trust beneficiaries (us) don’t like the trustees decisions.”
Deaccessioning is largely an art museum problem, meaning the majority of US museums, even if they felt it was a way to raise money, don’t have collections that would net enough on the auction block, nor do many have collections with the depth, that were they to weed, would allow them to raise significant money. But for some reason the Met’s announcement pulled the recently-healed scab off the deaccessioning discussion once again. So what are the “tells” and takeaways here?
- Deaccessioning is a tool many museums use, but disastrous scenarios like the Berkshire Museum’s $53.5 deaccessioning in 2018 left everyone with PTSD. Not all deaccessioning is alike or to put it another way, every deaccessioning decision is different.
- There is a theory that as the Met goes so goes the field. The Met is the largest American art museum, but art museums represent only 4.5-percent of all museums. Is the Met an influencer? Maybe, but perhaps not here. Somehow the Brooklyn deaccessioned $31 million worth of art last fall without causing a ripple.
- Deaccessioning is complex, but if you’re involved in museums, it’s worth understanding. Once again, AAM delivers with its Direct Care of Collections pdf.
The Take Aways
- Make sure your policies and guidelines are up to date. Know what they say. If you haven’t read them in a while, it might be good to take a look, just in case someone thinks the way to financial salvation is monetizing the collection.
- Knowledge is power. Read Steven Miller’s book Deaccessioning Today or find his guest blog post here, and share with your board.
- Collecting is a process, an expensive one. Every single piece or living thing in your collection represents a percentage of the care and attention of one or more people, not to mention the people who publicize and raise money for it. Collections aren’t just things. They represent people too. Think about it.
Museums have a world of problems these days. Many haven’t seen their audience except through Zoom in almost a year. Many face huge deficits. Underlying it all, social media beckons, inviting us all to rant, pontificate, and rave. Museum staff–those who are employed–work hard, often for inequitable salaries. Sometimes they are overworked, bullied and harassed, and find themselves in situations where they have no recourse, and yet they are the folks who help make the thousands of objects, paintings, and living things speak. Without them, museums are big warehouses with expensive climate control. I’ll close with a quote from the inimitable Nina Simon, which, as far as I’m concerned says it all: “When you prioritize the safety and welcome of people, who have lower access to power, you are working for equity and inclusion. When you prioritize the comfort and preferences of people with higher access to power, you are working against it.” Hold that thought when you make leadership decisions, when you write on social media, and when you place objects before people.
After months of COVID furloughs, firings and cutbacks, last week deaccessioning took center stage in the museum world. If your mind was on other things, here’s a capsule narrative: In early October the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) announced it would sell three paintings by Brice Marden, Clyfford Still and Andy Warhol. It plans to use the money for collection development and to address pay equity issues. BMA’s deaccession follows the Brooklyn Museum’s sale of 12 paintings. Both museums are deaccessioning after AAMD’s April announcement announcing that it wouldn’t sanction museums using deaccessioning funds for general operating support for the next two years.
There are stark differences between the two cases. Like many organizations, the Brooklyn Museum received a $4.5 million PPP loan, and laid off 28 full-time staff this summer. The Baltimore Museum of Art has retained its staff and is reportedly solven. It will use the money to add to an endowment for the acquisition of work by BIPOC artists, while the remainder will create an endowment for staff salaries.
The two sales, and the AAMD’s summer ruling, are haunted by the 2018 deaccessioning by the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA. There, the trustees and then-director Van Shields chose to sell 40 works from the collection for $42 million in a lengthy case that brought censure from AAMD, AAM, and many of its peers. Until AAMD relaxed its rules, the Berkshire Museum case seemed precedent setting, the kind of legal and ethical puzzle that would be examined by museum studies students for decades to come. Unlike the current group of sales, the Berkshire Museum wasn’t trying to diversify its collection, make its salaries more equitable or survive a recession caused by a world-wide pandemic. When all the explanations were parsed, it seemed to be undergoing an identity crisis, and wanted to shed its century old role as a small city general museum with a jewel of an art collection and be something else. The elephant in the room is that a $42-million endowment, even in the face of a pandemic, is likely to lower a board’s anxiety level, whether the organization is open or not.
One of the many voices who joined the Baltimore Museum of Art discussion is Arnold Lehman, Director Emeritus of the Brooklyn Museum, and a former director of the BMA. Lehman’s knowledge of the BMA’s collection is deep, yet it’s clear the Museum’s decision is about more than its collection. Nowhere in his letter does Lehman hint that there are larger systemic issues at work inside the museum walls. And yet, here is BMA Director Christopher Bedford quoted in The Times: “This is done specifically in recognition of the protest being led by museum staff to be paid an equitable living wage to perform core work for an institution with a social justice mission — that symmetry between who we say we are and what we actually are behind our doors.”
I would like to think that over the last nine months museum leaders have realized that being temples to white men, whether to white male artists, builders, politicians or rich guys, has lost its appeal, particularly in a city like Baltimore with a majority Black population of 63-percent. Part of that behavior extends to the way staff is treated. And a museum staff is everyone, from the cleaners and the guards to the curators, and their treatment includes salaries.
Could Baltimore have handled its deaccession decision differently? Maybe. It could have left the inequity of its salaries unaddressed, and perhaps gone on to face the type of protest and press its New York City sister museums have experienced. It could have deaccessioned from the bottom up, selling many smaller works in an attempt to reach the necessary dollar level. It also could have selected paintings likely to sell to another art museum, thus keeping work on public view. It could, as Franklin Sirmans of Miami’s Perez Museum suggests, have made a commitment to collecting Black and Latinex artists years ago. (True, but few boards did, which seems to be the heart of the problem.) Or it could have selected a different trio of big-ticket paintings that likely would have enraged a different portion of the public. The fact of the matter is we don’t know. Boards and their directors are like families. You may theorize what’s going on inside based on what you see, but without an inside seat, you don’t actually know.
In May guest blogger Steven Miller wrote about museum boards, “….the effect of an unprecedented coronavirus pandemic makes their work incredibly difficult. The challenges are mind-boggling. Ultimately, practical solutions for museums are almost entirely of a fiscal nature. What will it cost to survive, how will survival be defined, and, where will the money come from, not to mention when?” Museums are expensive places to run, and unlike the proverbial widget factory, what museums sell doesn’t net a profit so their value and their income streams don’t intertwine.
Deaccessioning is an important and necessary tool for all museums, but when boards and directors use collections as a cash cow, it erodes public trust. In its 2016 report on Direct Care of Collections AAM wrote, “If a museum experiences financial difficulties, its governing body must make decisions that are consistent with its mission and its obligations to the public with regard to collections stewardship. It should ensure that funds realized from the sale of deaccessioned objects are never used as a substitute for fiscal responsibility.” That last sentence presages the Berkshire Museum’s choices, but doesn’t necessarily apply to the Brooklyn and BMA.
Context in these cases is important. What if the community both inside and outside the museum changes? What if the community no longer sees cultural gatekeeping for a culture in which it has no part as essential? Can you know that from the outside? Then, is the museum just a warehouse full of supposedly important stuff? To a purist, does that matter? And a decade from now, will we look back and realize this was a hinge moment for museums, and we will mark time regarding collections before and after COVID?
There are so many times in a museum’s life where good leadership is key, not just from the curatorial staff, the director, but the board as well. Deaccessioning is no exception. These questions, particularly in this moment of cultural and financial upheaval, seem peculiarly individual. Boards and directors may be asked to make the least bad decision, yet one that benefits their own organization, their own staff and their own community. And the solution for Baltimore may not be the solution for Rochester or LA or Brooklyn. Just another important reason why museum leadership truly matters in this age of discord.
In Part II of a duo of guest blog posts (See May 11 for Part I) guest blogger Steven Miller examines the fate of museum collections in the Post-COVID age.
On April 15th the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) issued a press release announcing it had “…passed a series of resolutions addressing how art museums may use the restricted funds held by some institutions.” One part of the announcement stated “…an institution may use the proceeds from deaccessioned works of art – regardless of whether the works were deaccessioned before or after the date of these resolutions – to support the direct care of the museum’s collections.”
Museums are unique in their self-declared reliance on objects to justify their existence. Collections act as evidence of the subject a museum exists to explain. Acquisitions provide meaning about human history, creativity, and the sciences. Over the years the idea evolved that museum collections are held for the long term, a notion entirely generated by museums themselves as they devote considerable resources to save collections from theft, natural disaster, civil destruction, physical deterioration, etc. Though phrased in a way that suggests caring for collections is of importance to the AAMD, museums can interpret “direct care” as they wish. Collection sale profits can cover utility bills, capital expenses, debt payments, employee compensation, you name it. No one is checking.
If anyone ever doubted that museums are expensive organizations to run, COVID-19 proved them wrong. With many museums closed or trying to figure out how to open after 11 weeks of closure, admission and programming income is gone, and boards and their leadership are left to figure out the way forward. The AAMD’s April 15th announcement seems to provide an income option as it suggests collections are expendable financial assets.
In the early 1970s selling museum collections became highly controversial. Reacting to intense public debate, the museum field structured guidelines for the practice. Selling was condoned only if proceeds were allocated for future collection purchases, and/or the direct care of collections. Though these recommendations are accepted by most museums, unless restrictions apply to certain objects, museums can do with them as they wish. (Restrictions, legal or social, might apply to endangered species, stolen objects, materials of importance to indigenous peoples, or, things given or sold to museums with ownership caveats prohibiting future removal.) The majority of museum deaccession policies omit concerns for preserving what is being disposed of. The AAMD mirrors that practice.
Deaccession by unrestricted sale essentially amounts to the destruction of objects a museum once owned and cared for. Why does the AAMD like this? For me, the answer is money. As a membership organization the AAMD’s unspoken priority is to attract and keep customers – e.g., members, and because museums sell collections, AAMD condones the activity.
In the United States it is the duty of museum trustees to sustain institutions for which they are responsible. As noted, the effect of an unprecedented coronavirus pandemic makes their work incredibly difficult. The challenges are mind-boggling. Ultimately, practical solutions for museums are almost entirely of a fiscal nature. What will it cost to survive, how will survival be defined, and, where will the money come from, not to mention when?
The AAMD’s resolutions were made “…in recognition of the extensive negative effects of the current crises on the operations and balance sheets of many art museums – and the uncertain timing for a museum’s operations, fundraising, and revenue streams to return to normal.” Although a devastating idea, the gesture is probably of little consequence. Anyone familiar with the American museum world knows boards of trustees do whatever they feel like. Now as they face terrible choices to be responsible museum stewards, they will do whatever they legally can with whatever resources they have at hand. In the case of collection sales, the action touches on an argument voiced loudly in some museum circles: What is more important: collections, institutions, or museum employees?
Unless there are ownership restrictions prohibiting the selling of collections, nothing is exempt from this option. What was once acquired by people, for people, conserved, studied, and exhibited by and for people is lost. Remaining documentation is irrelevant, and public sale of art, historic artifacts, and scientific specimens invariably results in their disappearance forever.
Philosophically, if museums are about anything, they are about longevity. Most will survive the current plague and get back to the work. But that will take a year or two. Staff will be lost, capital projects stalled, cash on hand spent, and funding sources eviscerated. Regardless, encouraging the sale of collections is foolish for several reasons. In addition to violating the preservation trust museums espouse, it says all museum collections can be bought, just name your price. Moreover, it will reduce future meaningful collection donations. The vast majority of what is in art and history museums has been given not purchased. Who wants to make a charitable donation to an entity that is just looking for retail inventory? Finally, when the best and most important content of a museum is sold, why visit it?