The Conflict Between Public Trust and Surviving

in #museum3 years ago

This week we read about the controversial act of deaccessioning. As funding for cultural institutions continues to dwindle, more institutions are turning to selling part(s) of their collection. As our readings have explained, in the case of art museums specifically, professional organizations like the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) have established strict standards that limit a museum's ability to deaccession work. These regulations are meant to discourage deaccessioning in order help protect museum objects for the sake of the public trust. But these regulations have mostly fostered a culture of disdain for deaccession.

Those that defy AAMD regulations face professional isolation and public backlash. These consequences have, in turn, made inevitable deaccessioning less transparent, and ultimately less public in order to avoid said consequences. Most of the readings acknowledged that while museums selling collection items is not ideal, the AAMD regulations are unfair when the difference is often between deaccessioning and an institution's survival.

A 2017 protest against the Berkshire Museum selling off artwork in order to fund renovations and an updated mission. Photograph courtesy of ArtNews.

In the case of both institutional and individual choices, survival clearly comes first.

My buddy Dan just asked me if I'd ever work for an institution that I politically disagree with

I wanted my answer to be, "no, of course not!" Yet, while my willingness to sell out has its limits, the reality is that yeah, I'd probably work for an institution that I have some disagreements with. If I want to do anything to fight the system, my first step is surviving. I need a job.

The same is true of museums

I have deep rooted values that I want to be faithful to, but my need for employment may force me to bend my beliefs. No museum is founded with the thought, "of course we will sell our items to raise funds!" Most museums exist in order to preserve and exhibit items.

But a museum cannot fulfill its mission if it cannot afford to stay open.

In "Instead of Selling Objects, Build Public Trust," Nina Simon concludes with this call to action:

If we want to embrace communities instead of markets, we have to fight for it. We have to fight for the public trust, generosity, and shared ownership. We have to be ingenious in coming up with alternative forms of economic value, accumulation, and transfer. No one is going to do it for us.

But, I defer to my friend Scott's recent Facebook status:

Scott's point isn't that we should give up. I am not saying the deaccessioning is good. Yet, while Simon's call to action is important, it needs to come with the note that fighting is really hard. Sometimes fighting involves selling some stuff to keep the lights on.

So, uh, solutions?

Derek Fincham's article, "Deaccession of Art from the Public Trust" calls for a more transparent deaccessioning process. While acknowledging that the process isn't ideal, it is a necessary evil for many institutions to stay open. Thus, Fincham focuses their conclusions on how to make deaccession a more acceptable, public process.

While that is all well and good, I'm still thinking about the larger issues that make deaccession necessary.

How do we fix the funding crisis in the cultural sector??? How do we fight the system when we're too tired from our jobs???

I don't know. But we'll probably need to sell some things while we figure it out.


Fincham, Derek. ""Deaccession of Art from the Public Trust." Art, Antiquity & Law, 16.2 (July 2011): 93-129.

Simon, Nina. "Instead of Selling Objects, Build Public Trust." Museum 2.0. Jan. 8, 2018. Accessed at

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You found a gem of a quote:

We have to fight for the public trust, generosity, and shared ownership. We have to be ingenious in coming up with alternative forms of economic value, accumulation, and transfer.

Great! But what's it actually saying? What IS the "public trust"? Is it real or ideal? How is it currently trending? And, since "no one is going to do it for us" what would have to happen for Nina Simon's wish to become reality?

Doing the readings this week, I kept thinking back to what you're always saying about finding a way for institutions to close. Simon mentioned that decisions to deaccession are often framed as a solution in an existentialist crisis--deacession or we won't survive. If a museum has to deaccession part of its collection just to pay bills and barely survive for another year, perhaps it is time for it to close. Clearly they aren't using their collection well enough to attract many visitors or funders anyway. At least if they close there should be less pressure to capitalize the collection and an increased likelihood it might end up still within the public trust at other museums instead of in private hands.

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