Friday, January 15, 2010

A little sunlight on Coaccession

Jack Siegel, Charity Governance Consultant extraordinaire, had some thoughts on Coaccession:

Mark White, who was in the lively [Artropolis] audience, proposed that museums think of creative ways to monetize the value of their collections. He is working on an idea rooted in the property-law notion that a piece of property is a bundle of sticks, with each stick representing a different right or attribute. Under one of his proposals, a museum would retain all but one of the rights associated with a work in its collection. It would sell the right to others to display the work in their homes when the museum is not displaying it or conserving it or a scholar/historian is not studying it.

[An eminently fair description of Cultural Titles and Collector Titles.]

As various panelists and audience members pointed out, there are some problems with this idea.

[Perhaps at first glance, but not after due reflection.]

For example, how does the museum assure that the buyer will care for the art and not display it in direct sunlight?

[The buyer owns the artwork too, and is no more likely to ruin it if the museum retains rights to it than if he owns it outright. Museums, of course, have to use Coaccession wisely, keeping very delicate works under their own direct care, and maintaining open communications with co-owners and insurers of their more robust works. And while the open communications might be a financial burden under the old mortmain model of collections management, under the Coaccession model, the artworks provide their own endowment for care and outreach, among other things.]

Equally important, there is more to a museum’s mission than just displaying work. The art must be available to scholars who want to study it.

[The museum has the right to access the artwork to exercise its retained rights, and those include scholarly research. The artworks will be available to scholars the museum approves, and of course co-owners should be eager to cooperate since publication adds to the artwork's provenance and hence its financial value. Even if a highly eccentric co-owner proves uncooperative, though, the museum has the legal tools to enforce its access.

This does bring up an important point, though. The existing mortmain model severely limits museums' financial capacity to fulfill their missions. In many cases they cannot even provide proper conservation, much less proper research and exhibitions, and public outreach. By using at least part of the financial endowment inherent in the artworks that they own, museums will have the capacity to fulfill much more of their mission much more adequately. ]

But there was a disturbing undercurrent in these specific concerns. The notion that a work of art could be divided into fractional interests was characterized as too dangerous, a slippery slope, and troubling. We understand the specific concerns, but museums have had not been troubled by the notion of fractional interests in works of art when it comes to devising tax schemes that entice donations of fractional interests in works to museums. The fractional interest structure has permitted museums to lockup donor commitments before minds can change. As the legislative history to the Pension Protection Act of 2006 points out, there were abuses of fractional gifts, abuses that involved collusion between donors and museums. Under the practices that evolved, donors retained possession of the art. The museums didn’t seem all that concerned about sunlight or broken water pipes in those instances.

[Absolutely, Jack!]

One audience member came to White’s defense, arguing that museums need to pursue creative solutions to their financial problems. Although White’s idea may need some tweaking,

[I'm eager for suggestions!!]

and may not even be viable,

[Precedents have indeed gone both ways for equitable servitudes on chattel, but Coaccession is definitely on the side of the favorable precedents.]

he is at least thinking creatively about how to finance aesthetic sensibilities.

[Like Jack Maroney, who also has a plan that lets museums have their Monet and money, too, so artworks support the arts.]

In essence, the audience member argued that the curators should show the same open-mindedness to finance that they demand of the public when it comes to art.

[Here, here. It's high time to start moving past the mortmain model of collections management!]

Jack's Coaccession comments are part of a great post on the 2009 Artropolis panel session, Museums on the Line: Cutbacks, Closures and Opportunities, which touched on many topics illustrated by the closure of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. Read it all!

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