Monday, January 18, 2010

What's More Ethical?

Mark Gold and Michael O'Hare seem to be on to something with FASB 116.

Apparently independently, they note that wealthy museums don't want the public to know just how much wealth they're holding -- or mindlessly hoarding, as O'Hare calls it. Mark Gold ties the "ethics" rules on deaccession to the efforts of large museums to avoid having their accountants capitalize their collections. O'Hare says the real ethical problem is letting museum managements get such minimal returns from the huge assets they're entrusted with. If accounting statements reflected the market values of collections, we'd expect more.

Responding to attorney Mark Gold's September 2009 AAM piece about the deaccession rule's history, "Nothing Ethical About It," history professor at Central Connecticut State University Briann Greenfield writes that "While museum professionals know that deaccessioning can play an important role in collection management, the public see museums as perpetual caregivers. If mismanaged, high profile sales can wreak havoc with the public trust and alienate donors, both past and future."

The public sees museums as places to visit and learn. It's the museum profession and museum donors that see them as perpetual caregivers. If you really want to wreak havoc with public trust, let museums start closing their doors. As far as donors go, they'll likely be happier if museums Coaccession rather than hoard or deaccession. Once they see their donation not only add to the museum culturally but financially too, they'll be that much more satisfied.

Here's my comment on Greenfield's post at the Connecticut Humanities Council's website:

Gold's point about extremely wealthy institutions hiding their assets so they can keep asking donors for more resources rather than face calls to share their existing vast fortunes with their communities is overdrawn, but the grain of truth in it suggests these institutions should consider alternative ways to mobilize those resources.

Financially-driven deaccessions make a museum choose between having its Monet or having money. Modern alternatives let a museum have its Money and money, too. James Maroney's plan uses tenancy in common, while my own uses equitable servitudes. Both let museums share their collections with collectors and investors in ways that ensure the museum always has ultimate control over the objects used to raise money.

Even with arts communities of all kinds suffering, our wealthiest institutions shouldn't just liquidate their collections to help avoid layoffs and shutdowns. But if these art museums can mobilize their collections' financial value without jeopardizing their cultural value, then it makes sense for artworks to support the arts.

Coaccession lets museums expand the public domain by increasing their financial ability to control cultural rights to objects, letting them hold vastly more objects in their collections while improving care for those objects, and exhibiting and researching them more. Because it lets objects leave the public domain, deaccession is a worse alternative. But the worst alternative of all is letting the museum shut down and scatter its collection to the four winds in a sale designed to satisfy creditors, which is just what is happening at the Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art and Science, and what is likely to happen repeatedly across America unless museums modernize past the mortmain management model for collections.

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