Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What's More Ethical? II

Over at the Connecticut Humanities Council, Briann Greenfield graciously responded to my comment on her review of Mark S. Gold's discussion of deaccession ethics. Briann said:

Mark: Thanks for your comments and for introducing me to "Coaccession." I have to admit that I don't understand the system you propose enough to fully evaluate it. But the idea raises fundamental concerns for me.

In a society in which individual ownership and private wealth is the rule, museums are important precisely because they stand in opposition to the private market place. Museums represent shared culture and a shared public trust. To function at their best, they need to be seen as community resources. Coaccession undermines museums' community role and transforms them into places where wealthy individuals have special rights and privileges over the collection. Museums have fought for decades to shed their image as temples for the elite and to become more inclusive. Isn’t this a step backward?

In addition, I'm concerned that selling "equitable servitudes" will affect the meaning of the objects in our collections. We want our visitors to value the art and objects in our care for what they can teach us about our culture and our history -- not for how much money they are worth. How will selling possession shares affect museum's collecting practices? Won't curators be influenced to acquire pieces for their profit potential rather than their educational potential?

I understand and appreciate Coaccession as an attempt to support the financial health of museums. We need to pay the bills and keep the doors open -- but we need to do so in a way that doesn't undermine our core values. (Posted on January 22, 2010 11:18 PM)

My reply follows:

Briann, your engagement on Coaccession is most welcome. This isn't the place for a tutorial on the system, but your fundamental concerns do deserve a response.

First, the private market place produces the wealth that let museums represent a shared culture and public trust. Coaccession would let museums thrive, putting on many more programs funded by their new endowments. Wealthy individuals would store the most valuable objects, but they're best able to secure and preserve them between exhibitions, research access, and conservation projects. Ordinary individuals could still store culturally-important objects, if not the most financially-valuable of them. This community storage is more inclusive, and a step in the right direction, especially with increased exhibitions and programs letting people see and appreciate the most valuable objects more frequently than when they're just sitting in the museum basement for lack of funds.

Second, cultural value determines financial value, not vice versa. Our visitors care most for the objects that teach most about our culture and history, and that desire raises their financial value. Selling possession via Collector Titles will let museums acquire cultural rights to far more of the art and objects that ought to be in the public domain, and will keep those objects in the community where people can appreciate them between those times when scholars and conservators need access and those other times when they're on display for the entire community to appreciate.

The financial health of museums lets them celebrate our core values more effectively. Genteel poverty or death with dignity should not be the fate of museums when the substantial financial resources in their collections can let them elevate culture more effectively. (Submitted, awaiting posting there. UPDATE: Posted)

Here's hoping Briann stays engaged in discussion.

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