Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Mobilizing Coaccession

Chicago Art Magazine just published my note on Coaccession applications:


My thanks to publisher Kathryn Born and editor Sara Burrows for their interest, encouragement and support. The exercise of preparing the note was quite useful, and I hope for feedback that fine tunes the applications.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Which Moral Hazard?

Donn Zaretsky and Michael Rushton went around the block on moral hazards in museum management. Rushton concluded: "In the end ... I appreciate DZ's point that we just are not yet in a position to say with accuracy whether the costs of the moral hazard I worry about [of a safety net promoting lax management] exceed the benefits from flexible access to funds through deaccessioning in times of crisis. But I will maintain the cost is there, even if, under new, relaxed norms governing deaccessions, the costs would not immediately be apparent. Should we change those norms because of a one-time shock to endowments as a result of the financial crisis?"

As my comment there notes (in my characteristically-orthogonal way), "Zaretsky's position [about benefits of flexible access] brings up a more basic question that the moral hazard discussion tends to obscure: shouldn't museums use all their assets to best fulfill their mission? By mobilizing the financial value in their collections, museums can implement programs that increase the cultural value of those same collections -- more exhibitions, research, conservation and engagement.

"This mobilization seems all the more compelling if it doesn't require deaccessions. Partial title sales approaches, like James Maroney's tenancy in common method or my own Coaccession(tm) equitable servitudes system, let museums have their Monet and money, too, so artworks can support the arts without leaving the public domain.

"If museums can let their communities hold their collections' financial value while retaining control over those collections' cultural rights, then maximizing the collections' cultural value in the community seems like the right thing to do. In fact, doesn't fiduciary responsibility obligate the trustees and directors to do so? On what basis do they hold excess financial reserves in a passive form?

"This comment isn't meant to be absolutist about mobilizing finance to elevate culture. I just hope to show that there are other points of view and concerns beyond the moral hazard of deaccession. Museums don't have to deaccession if they use partial title sales. So, once we get past deaccession as a method, why not have your Monet and money, too?"

Briann Greenfield was great in responding to a comment not even on her own blog, willing to expand her range. I'd love to see Michael Rushton's response to my point, but now that nearly a month has passed, I fear it may be a long while, if ever. I still think it's a good point, which is why I share it here as well as there.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Keeping collections together in bankruptcy

The New York Times and Bloomberg recently reported on a forthcoming Sotheby's auction offering the cream of Polaroid's photography collection. John R. Stoebner, court-appointed trustee for Polaroid, offered the complete collection to several museums, but none was able to purchase it. Well, it's a lot harder to buy the cultural rights along with possession than it is to buy the cultural rights alone.

The trustee should Coaccession the collection, not deaccession it. Museums could bid for the set of Cultural Titles to the entire collection, keeping the cultural rights together under a single owner, while individual collectors could bid for Collector Titles to individual photos.

Perhaps AD Coleman can persuade the interested parties to propose this to the trustee and Sotheby's. He seems better positioned to get their attention than anyone around here that I know.

UPDATE: The hat tip here goes to Donn Zaretsky, but kud0s go to Marion Maneker, who publishes comments about his posts. I'm glad they finally started catching me up on this.

Friday, February 5, 2010

DePaul tackles deaccession

Time Out Chicago writes about deaccessioning controversies in the context of DePaul Art Museum's exhibit of artworks destined for collection-culling deaccession (hat tip to Donn Zaretsky).

My comment:

Museums should only deaccession to shape collections. Funding to avoid layoffs and program cuts -- or expand staff and programs -- can come from partial title sales with the Maroney Plan or my own Coaccession(tm) method. These let a museum have its Monet and money, too, so artworks can support the arts. Donors in fact finance care and exhibition via the financial value of donated artworks. Museums must mobilize that to maximize the cultural value of their artworks to their public supporters.

Thanks to Time Out Chicago for the 500 character limit. In the middle of the night, external discipline is useful, so the comment is better than it might have been.

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.