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Will museums de-acces their collections?

Museums have always leaned on ticket and gift shop sales for their survival and since the ongoing crisis, shuttering down has been ubiquitous. The most frustrating portion is the fact that they rest on a pile of hundreds of millions worth collection, whose tiny fraction could keep their boat afloat. But recently a new hope has arisen, your beloved local museum may not pull down their last painting after all as a delayed but well-deserved relief comes to museums with the recent declaration by the Association of Art Museum Directors. The declaration states that the association will allow museums to use proceeds from de-accessions for operating expenses and for direct care of their collection for a period of 2 years. However, their statement is a rather ambiguous one. Let us tell you why.

AAMD has allowed re-allotments of funds from restrictive to non-restrictive uses in two ways- one is through allowing the reallocation of endowment funds, donations and trusts set aside for other uses “such as art acquisition, conservation or research” to general operations, and the other is via de-accessions of work from their collection. De-accessions simply means to sell artwork from the institution’s collection. In the past, it was usually done in order to gain funds to acquire a new piece of art which would be more relevant to the collection and the visiting community.

But this decision raises same ethical question towards the associations previous reactions. Considering its historical sanction in 2018 on Berkshire Museum, among other examples, when the museum performed a renovation for its survival using funds generated through the sale of 20 works from its collection. They were hugely unsupported and criticized by the museum community. For the museums which were forced to shut down or struggled due to lack of funds, it would now seem unfair to see those exact restrictions being repelled, as they too faced challenging times that were a threat to their existence. Today, all the museums are in the same position, they have to de-accessions in order to survive. When a museum is sanctioned by AAMD, they are blacklisted by all museums and supporters which translates to lack of donors, denial of exhibition loans or collaborations from other museums, loss of respect from the community and stigmatization.

Now that this restriction has been raised, there is a lot of breathing space, but it gives rise to another major issue- what are the parameters for these guidelines? As the AAMD statement says, “Each museum must determine its own definition of “direct care,” develop and adopt a policy that articulates that definition clearly, and share it publicly. We recommend that institutions draw on a position paper developed by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM)) as a starting point.” If one goes through the AAM position paper, there seems an absence of clarity, as the AAM guide kept evolving from 1991 to 2015 but never came to any definitive points. It formed a task force that conducted a survey and received 1200 responses to recommend “direct care”. With several “ grey areas” (as mentioned in the paper) left for people to answer for themselves, there seems to be an heightened lack of guidance. What covers operational costs? Does full- staff salary, collection management, conservation, safety protocols entail the same? If so, to what degree can one allot the funds towards it? The AAMD asks the museums to send and publicly publish a clear plan online in order to inform the association and the community. They have to submit records of the way the money was generated and what it was used for. But without a definitive structure and statement that seems arbitrary, it makes it confusing for one to do so.

Museums already have a difficult time with massive layoffs, collection management, exhibition cancellations and in maintaining a public presence. As a 1,600 worker signed petition by New York Art Worker states, “Let the conversation around de-accessioning artwork and dipping into endowments start if it means saving jobs.” Museum workers have faced the brunt of this situation, which could have been avoided. Considering the fact that museums even managed to retain all their staff, in order to maintain or conserve a large object/collection will be alarming, considering the need for social distancing and worker safety. With massive program cuts and a bombardment of mediocre online content, it’s already tough to maintain a community interest in the current time through e- platforms. The economy has taken a massive hit as well, so the expectancy of huge donations, revenue and visitors after they reopen is already low. Deciding which donor/ trust/ endowment/ interest/ artwork or department they must reallocate their funds from and to, will be very time consuming and taxing. Along with all of the above factors, detailed plans to hand over which are made by unclear instructions, revisions post the associations or second party’s approval will all be a massive challenge. Christine Anagnos, executive director of AAMD says that they understand the financial crisis but “At the same time, whether it is the principal of an endowment or the art that comprises a museum’s collection, we need to protect important assets for future use. These resolutions strike a balance between addressing near-term needs and our long-held values…” But if AAMD had lifted its restrictions at the beginning of this pandemic, the museums would be in a better position to weather this crisis and a lot of workers would not have to face adversities.

People quarreling in front of Berkshire Museum in 2017. Photo: Gillian Jones - the Berkshire Eagle

Even if museums now want to sell their work, the most desired ones that museums own are usually on their permanent display, and with the upcoming barrage of works that will be available for sale, the value for the same will go down, spoil the market and the demand for it. Even so, as Sebastian Smee says in The Washington Post “the assumption that there are endless riches in a museum’s storage rooms just waiting to be tapped is unrealistic.” But, had this option been available at the start of the crisis, museums could have strategized and planned things in a more effective manner.

But, the revision of the rule has been a boon for a lot of museums and it definitely should come as life saver for those who are on the verge of extinction. It is most certainly a big relief for museum workers. This decision sets a precedence for the future as museums can now challenge the association’s current rule. The biggest concern is that that should not translate into museums using this example to abuse funds and break other restriction by AAMD which are genuinely beneficial to the community. How efficacious this new development will prove to be, is yet to be seen.

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