THE squeeze is on. Museums everywhere are having trouble making ends meet, what with the overblown expansions they've made, the decline in investment income and the steep drop-off in contributions from foundations and individuals. Many have cut staff, frozen pay, trimmed exhibition schedules and slowed or stopped acquisitions. For some, that may not be enough: the American Folk Art Museum, to cite one example, recently admitted that it isn't making debt payments.
What's next? In some corners, there's fear that museum officials will do what is absolutely forbidden by art-world rules: raise operating cash with a sale of artwork. Already some respected figures — David Gordon, former head of the Milwaukee Art Museum, and Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, for example — are saying that the rule against selling art for any purpose other than buying more art is wrong.
But the mere mention of art sales for operating money turns some purists purple with apoplexy, and could restart the uproar that occurred last year when Brandeis University bruited but backtracked from the idea of selling works from its Rose Art Museum, eventually prompting Jehuda Reinharz, the university president, to step down. Just before that, the National Academy Museum sold two Hudson River School paintings to pay its bills, eliciting tough sanctions from the normally hands-off Association of Art Museum Directors.
Many people don't understand the problem. If the choice is between allowing a museum to fail (or make crippling cutbacks) and selling some art, what's the big deal? Sell art! Most museums, after all, hold many works they have no room to display and stuff them into back rooms and off-site storage facilities. If museums are allowed to cull their collections to raise money to buy more art, why can't they sell those very same pieces to solve their financial problems?
The big deal is this: The strict constructionists believe that once selling art to cover operating costs is allowed, it will become the first resort in bad times, not the last.
On that score, they may be right. It's human nature to test the line and, having gotten away with something, to do it again. Some museum trustees and other large donors are themselves stretched, relatively speaking, by this recession and can't or won't increase their gifts. Yet no one knows when the economy will restore investment portfolios and bank accounts to their previous health. The money has to come from somewhere.
Maybe it's best to amend the unwritten sales ban, but not end it. What if a museum had to argue its case for de-accessioning art before an impartial arbitrator?
This neutral party would need to be schooled in art, art law and nonprofit regulations.
Moreover, the museum would need to open its financial books completely, so that the arbitrator could see that all other reasonable avenues of fund-raising, as well as cutbacks, had already been exhausted. And it would need to open its cataloguing records and storerooms, to show that the departure of the works in question would not irreparably damage the collection and that no donor agreements would be violated.
Most important, as part of any deal permitting the sale of art, the de-accessioning museum would have to offer the works to other museums first. If it received no offers, it could sell the pieces via a public auction — and any American museum would then have the opportunity to match a winning bid if it promised to keep the work in a public collection.
Who would administer this system? There's no regulatory agency for art museums. For large museums, the Association of Art Museum Directors could step up to the plate. For university museums, the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries could do the job. Likewise, the American Association of Museums, which accredits a larger spectrum of museums, might need to play a role. Each would hire professional arbitrators when necessary.
If those groups wouldn't do the job, it could fall to a state agency, a charities bureau or the attorney general's office, whichever oversees nonprofits.
Museums' money troubles are unlikely to disappear soon. And until they do, de-accessioning shouldn't be impossible — just nearly so.