All Questions, But Who Has the Answers?

The collection is everything in the art world.  It is the heart of the institution, so why would an institution decide to get rid of it?  If you start deaccessioning items, eventually you won’t have a collection or anything that matters, right?  Some may say these actions are unethical if the profit made is not put back into collections, but who decides what’s ethical? When museums make decisions that challenge public trust, who’s the brain behind the decision?  If your institution saw an opportunity to invest in its future at the expense of the collection, would you do it?

Brian Alexander had an ethical dilemma as the Director of the Shelburne Museum.  His Board made the decision to deaccession a small number of items in the collection to establish an endowment that went toward the long-term care and management of the majority of its collections. The decision sent many people and organizations in the art world in uproar.  One of these being AAM who stepped in to advise Alexander on what they thought to be the ethical path.  Is it the AAM’s duty to be the arbitrator of ethical decisions in museums or is that power in the hands of trustees of individual institutions? Ultimately, he said, what it comes down to is that the obligations of the trustees is to the institution first, even if it means criticism.

As Alexander said, when in doubt “always take the high road and try to do the right thing for your institution.”

Source Citations:

Alexander, Brian. Interview by Megan Hartmann and Araya Henry. 13 December 2013.

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One Response to All Questions, But Who Has the Answers?

  1. keswartz says:

    Earlier this year the Seward House in Auburn, NY went through a similar controversy. The Emerson Foundation that funds the museum decided it would sell the house’s famous Thomas Cole painting to ensure financial security for the museum. The Seward estate fought the decision, and the public was surprised and upset by the idea of losing the painting. In September, the Attorney General weighed in and said the painting should stay at the Seward House. It poses an interesting dilemma, though, about the priorities of an institution, weighing sustainability with the mission of the museum and the value of the collection for the community.

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