Lora Urbanelli, the director of the Montclair Museum, appeared on WNYC today along with Arnold Lehman of the Brooklyn Museum to discuss their institutions' responses to the economic downturn. While we wait for the audiocast of this interview to be posted online, Urbanelli's appearance gives us another chance to review her letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal that appeared last Thursday:
In"Another Art Museum Puts Its Collection on the Block" (Leisure & Arts, April 15), James Panero engages in a serious discussion of the nature of deaccessioning and the responsibility that museums have to their communities to uphold their trust. The Montclair Art Museum's collection policy and plans came under review and he takes issue with our decision to deaccession selected items from our collection during a time of financial crisis. This is indeed a complex and topical issue that no museum undertakes lightly.
After a careful and strategic review of its operations and finances, the Montclair Art Museum has announced a comprehensive plan, of which deaccessioning is a part, addressing both short-term and long-term needs. The full description of this plan may be found on our Web site: montclairartmuseum.org. The deaccessioning component of the plan, part of a long-term strategy in place for many years, attempts to identify items that are duplicative, of lesser quality than objects already in our collection by the same artist, or are not consistent with the collecting mission of the museum. This effort will help to build our endowment for the future purchase of works of art.
Deaccessioning for acquisition funds, linked with the pressures put on our endowment by the market, has certainly created a complicated combination of circumstances. Nonetheless, our actions were undertaken after consulting with the president of the Association of Art Museum Directors. We are and have been following policy and conducting these transactions in a completely transparent manner.
Our responsibility is to ensure that the Montclair Art Museum's dedication to Native American and American art and culture can be served through new acquisitions, while assuring its ability to mount inspiring exhibitions and provide educational programs over the long term.
A "serious discussion"? A "complicated combination of circumstances"? It is reassuring to see that Urbanelli has taken more away from my article than certain online critics (here and here). These critics have merely nitpicked the details of the story rather than discuss the issues and implications of the case. But as I've already written, I forgive them. Professional jealousies keep this story in the spotlight.
Which brings me to Urbanelli. From my first conversation with her, which was courteous and high-minded, to the Journal letter, Urbanelli has been up front about the financial contingencies behind her deaccession. Urbanelli says she wants to be "transparent." This deaccession was first announced by Montclair, let's remember, in what the museum called a "financial security plan." Urbanelli justifies the sales by claiming that she is operating within the guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), the peer-review organization that advises museum propriety. True enough. As I argued in my initial Journal editorial, AAMD's signoff, by allowing a permanent collection to be liquidated for financial considerations, reveals a fundamental flaw in museum governance.
Where Urbanelli has been less than transparent, I believe, has been in her claim that the sales are primarily a result of curatorial housekeeping with only ancillary financial benefits. "The deaccessioning component of the plan," she writes, "part of a long-term strategy in place for many years, attempts to identify items that are duplicative, of lesser quality than objects already in our collection by the same artist, or are not consistent with the collecting mission of the museum."
So long as AAMD allows art acquisition funds--generated from sales--to serve double duty as banking instruments, all museums sales must be questioned. For the Montclair sales, I have expressed my doubts that their cull has been the result of pure curatorial decision-making, done outside of financial concerns. (The financial temptations of deaccession should be regulated away, argues former Whitney and SFMOMA director David Ross, and I agree.)
From my initial investigation I noticed that certain items in the Montclair sales appear in a book of highlights published by the museum--a strange place to see "duplicative" objects or works of "lesser quality." Now the blogger Lee Rosenbaum has gone the extra step of following through on more of the specific works up for auction. The results are even more alarming. Take a look at Rosenbaum's excellent reporting here and here. Rosenbaum undercuts Urbanelli's high-ground claims and casts the Montclair sales in further ignominy.
Why should this concern us? Because as I wrote in my Journal editorial, deaccessioning for financial gain addresses a short-run problem at the expense of the long-term public trust.