Among its other tenets, the Code of Ethics For Museums followed by The American Alliance of Museums requires that member organizations ensure that:
- collections in its custody are lawfully held, protected, secure, unencumbered, cared for and preserved
- acquisition, disposal, and loan activities conform to its mission and public trust responsibilities, and
- disposal of collections through sale, trade or research activities is solely for the advancement of the museum’s mission. Proceeds from the sale of nonliving collections are to be used consistent with the established standards of the museum’s discipline, but in no event shall they be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections.
In other words, museums cannot ethically sell off their collections to finance or benefit non-museum goals and objectives.
Never mind. La Salle University’s trustees announced that the university planned to sell 46 paintings, sculptures, and drawings selected by Christie’s auction house and use the expected profits of $4.8 -$7.3 million into teaching and courses. That means that the University will be using the art as investments and assets rather than art.
“I feel as though the place has been raped,” said Caroline P. Wistar, a longtime curator of the museum who retired about a decade ago. “They’re selling all of the very best things — a Degas drawing, a Vuillard. This is major. I feel like they’ve killed the museum.” Timothy Rub, head of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and past president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, said,
“Is a gain of $4.8 to $7.3 million in operating funds really a game-changer for the university, or will this simply leave its museum — which is acknowledged as being an enormously valuable resource for faculty and students — weakened? It’s one thing to use deaccessioning as a means for strengthening the collection by ‘trading up.’ Indeed, the [ethics] guidelines provide for that. But it’s another to use the funds for something else entirely, and not necessarily a good thing either for the museum or the university.”
Museum directors talk this way. “Deaccessioning” means “selling.” “Not necessarily a good thing” means “a bad thing.”
The decision was approved by the school’s board of trustees and announced by La Salle president Colleen M. Hanycz as “a strategic and good use of our assets,” adding that “we are doing what we feel is in the best interest of our students.”
But not in the best interests of art students, artists, art, the museum, or those who enjoy and learn from its collection. La Salle has decided that the ends justify the means. Other institutions strapped for funds have come to a similar conclusion. Brandeis University in Massachusetts announced a plan to close its museum and sell its art, but was foiled by students, faculty and legal action. Randolph College in Virginia sold a George Bellows painting worth more than $25 million.
Artworks donated or purchased for museums are regarded as being held in trust. If universities and colleges cannot be trusted to value these artworks as priceless art rather than investments and potentially sellable commodities when the budgets get tight, then they not trustworthy. Maybe art museums don’t belong on college campuses.
If the art works aren’t respected for what they are, and will not be preserved and protected, then they do not.
Pointer: John Glass