The Berkshire Museum has gone ahead with the auction and private sale of choice pieces from its collection, including works by Norman Rockwell (whose works were intended for the people of Pittsfield, MA in perpetuity), Alexander Calder, and Frederic Church. They have not yet reached the $55 million cap permitted by the Massachusetts Attorney General, and so may return to the auction block with more pieces, but the majority of the transactions have been completed. In response, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has sanctioned the Berkshire Museum, requesting that the association’s 243 members refuse to lend works to the Berkshire Museum or collaborate with it on exhibitions. In a statement the AAMD stated, “Selling art to support any need other than to build a museum’s collection fundamentally undermines the critically important relationships between museums, donors and the public. When museums violate the trust of their donors and the public, they diminish the opportunity and responsibility to make great works of art available to the public.”
Even as this sanction was issued, other voices in the art and museum world rallied to suggest that the current system is flawed. Artsy suggested that the American Association of Museums’ (AAM) policy which only allows collections to be deaccessioned and sold in order to fund the purchase of more art should be modified to permit more diverse uses. They argue that if the goal of museums is to secure collections for the public good, what good comes of large institutions locking away vast amounts of art that may never be displayed? They propose a modified deaccession policy that gives other institutions first opportunity to acquire works, and allows the proceeds from the sales to be used for other purposes beyond acquisitions.
The AAM’s deaccessioning policy intentionally restricts the use of proceeds from deaccessioned collections to prevent liquidation of assets held for the public good from being used to cover up financial mismanagement or other unethical uses. In a recent statement in response to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling on the Berkshire Museum case, the AAM reiterated their position, “We believe this is a critical issue of ethical conduct and best practice, one tied directly to the public trust. When museums violate the trust of their donors and the public, they diminish the opportunity and responsibility to make our cultural heritage available to the public. This hurts the individual institution and affects the museum field as a whole.”
The AAM and AAMD are certainly working on behalf of the public good, and it is in keeping with their roles as professional organizations to scrupulously maintain the ethics of the industry, but they may also need to assess their current position. Undoubtedly, institutions across the country with high storage costs and low display space are watching this saga unfold and contemplating if they might withstand the legal and professional scrutiny if it meant they could pursue that capital project, hire that new education staff, or add more robust programming to their schedule. Museums are well aware of their precarious positions in their communities as both trusted sources of information and lean competitors for tourism dollars. It may be time for a careful re-consideration of what constitutes the future of ethical use of funds raised from deaccessioning works. If the AAM and other professional organizations refuse to seriously consider the issue before institutions, it may be that other museums follow the Berkshire’s lead and ethical debates, court judgements, and sanctions hit the newspapers with a frequency that could alter the public’s faith in museums.