Monday, January 11, 2010

Coming out more

Judith Dobrzynski's NYT op-ed prompted letters to the editor, which prompted continued discussion in the comments at RealClearArts, first at her original post and then in her response to the letters:

Here's my response to the letters at her original post:

Regarding James N. Woods's January 8, 2010 Letter to the NYT Editor on your Jan. 2 Op-Ed, he and I agree that you deserve thanks from all who care about art museums, and especially public access and the public domain, for raising the deaccession issue that few speak of. But unlike Mr. Woods, I also agree with your conclusion — that a museum's financial crisis can justify selling artworks — and do so based on the issues he cites as his two reasons to disagree. First, I believe your plan and others aimed at capitalizing collections could indeed alleviate many financial crises and put museums on sound financial footings, and second, I think the "unintended" consequences from other capitalization plans could greatly increase public access and the public domain.

Artwork prices have risen so much in recent decades that selling one or two major or a few relatively minor artworks outside of a museum's core strengths can still raise very substantial sums relative to the small sizes of most existing cash endowments. Such sales let museums continue to conserve all their relevant, good, and thereby potentially important, artworks, and fund additional public access. The substantial sums available from artworks sales can make this a solution permanent, not a stopgap. Indeed, deaccessions can be a long-term solution raising substantial amounts that lets museums prosper mightily even with only just the endowment spending that preserves principal, and other approaches can even let museums preserve or expand the public domain at the same time.

An unintended consequence of capitalizing collections could indeed change a board's fiduciary perception more toward asset management than philanthropy, but that's not necessarily bad. Human nature shows us that most of us would prefer to invest our money than give it away, so a board that finds and embraces workable alternatives that fund museums more with investments than gifts may expand public access and the public domain far more than those that simply expect all supporters to give away their money. Boards should seize such alternatives as long as they give potential and past artwork investors and donors comfort as to the future use of their assets and gifts.

Deaccession alternatives that sell partial titles rather than full titles -- the James Maroney plan and my own are the ones I know -- offer ways a museum can have its Monet and money, too. These approaches let museums tap some of the huge hidden capital gains embedded in their uncapitalized collections to improve public access and expand the public domain. The existing "mortmain model" completely ignores these possibilities, going beyond conservative to monastic. If boards and executives are to contribute to the maximum of their capacity, they must contribute thinking as well as cash, and not just continue to do things the way museums have always done them. Financial resources are too central to the integrity of museums to be ignored, even if some insiders insist on trying to hide them under "ethical" covers. There's noting ethical about maintaining a pure posture until bankruptcy scatters a collection to the four winds.

Dr. Mark White -- Coaccession - at

This was before Judith posted her response to the letters. When she did, she addressed all their major points. My comment focused on her response to Jeffrey Abt's plan to require cash operating endowment donations accompany art gifts and operating endowment investments accompany art purchases. This makes theoretical sense from a "mortmain model" point of view, but, as Judith notes, it would "truly discourage donations of art."

To preface my comment submission, I wrote Judith: "Appreciate the pub of my response to letters, and liked yours, particularly for the food for thought on Abt. Hope you like my comment -- as I say, Coaccession makes me feel like I can draw plans in perspective while mortmain forces most others to just stack everything up in the plane. Here's hoping the museum profession bears with creative breakthroughs in real time as well as they would like to think they would."

Only Judith knows if my preface made a difference, but she did publish my comment:

You make a very good case, JHD, for arbitrated deaccessions as a last resort to avoid bankruptcy. Of course, since we all want to avoid financially-driven deaccessions, we should look for earlier resorts to enhance museums' financial stability before they need arbitrated deaccessions.

Jeffrey Abt's proposal to tie art gifts to cash operating endowment donations tries to do that, but you're right that insisting a donor pony up cash to accompany their artwork could be a bridge too far. What the "mortmain model" overlooks, though, is the fact that the operating endowment donation comes bundled right along with the art gift.

The partial title sales of the Maroney Plan and the Coaccession method let museums raise funds for the operating endowment -- and for future artwork purchases to boot -- without the art gift leaving the permanent collection. That's having your Monet and money, too! The museum need not ask the donor for cash when socially-responsible museum investors can supply it based on the gift's financial value.

Museums are only interested in their collections' cultural value. There's no cultural cost to letting communities invest in their collections' financial value and a great deal of cultural benefit from the enlarged operating endowments. Financial problems would be far less likely when partial title sales let communities literally invest in their museums' collections. Let's use the full cultural and financial value in permanent collections to avoid financial deaccessions -- arbitrated or otherwise.

Mark White -- Coaccession - at -

Here's hoping museums will apply some financial creativity to fulfilling their cultural missions.

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