Monday, March 23, 2009

Double Standard? Deaccessioning in Art and Music

Everybody who follows the art world at all knows that the National Academy museum in New York has been coming in for merciless criticism over its sale of two Hudson River School paintings to raise money for basic operating expenses. The Association of Art Museum Directors has prohibited its members from entering into any collaboration with the NA. The so-called "deaccessioning" of holdings to pay operating expenses is like the cardinal sin of the museum community. And there are some good reasons for this; for example: (a) it suggests that the museum leadership is sitting on its duff instead of fundraising; (b) it sends an awful message to people who might contribute artworks with the intention of improving a particular museum's holdings; (c) it threatens to dismantle collections that were painstakingly built up over decades to represent a particular style or school (d) since the only works worth selling for this purpose are those of great merit which bring high prices, it is a sure road to the diminution of the status of the institution - a slippery slope, so to speak; and (e) it demoralizes patrons, staff, audiences, critics, and just about anyone else the museum might count as its base of support.

Whew! Plenty to be concerned about, there. The NY State Legislature has even begun to consider a bill that would legally prohibit deaccessioning to pay operating expenses. And though I personally doubt they would be able to prevent such sales, which can be executed under a variety of pretenses, there are more than enough examples to worry anyone who thinks that important collections have a life of their own and need to be preserved. In 2005 the New York Public Library sold a large number of paintings, including another Hudson River School work of inestimable cultural value to the area and the institution (
Asher Durand's "Kindred Spirits"). It ended up in the hands of Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, who also wished to denude Fisk University of half their interest in a world-class collection of Georgia O'Keefe paintings. With the full complicity of the university Board, who pleaded financial distress, she hoped to stash some of them in her Crystal Bridges museum in Arkansas. If Arkansas travellers can smuggle some artworks out of the NYPL, maybe we can kidnap some backporch country fiddlers and move a couple of swamps to Queens? (What's that you say - Queens already has enough swamps?) And in what must be the Nightmare on Elm Street of deaccessioning, Brandeis University recently announced that they would close the highly regarded Rose Art Museum due to a budget shortfall, and use the money to improve "arts education" (there's plenty of art in Beantown, they reasoned, so who needs this particular collection?)

And now for something not completely different: everybody who follows the music world knows that in 2007 the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra sold its recently acquired collection of classic Cremonese instruments. All sorts of shenanigans accompanied the acquisition of the instruments in 2003, including a gross overestimate of the value of the collection by the seller, Herbert Axelrod, questions about the authenticity of some of them, and doubts about the appraisal process. What is not in question, though, is that the NJSO in one leap became an orchestra renowned for its string sound (something it took the Philadelphia Orchestra many years to achieve), and the repository of a substantial share of the greatest violins ever made. Yet in 2007 the orchestra sold the collection to pay down debt and support future operating expenses. The collection, some 30 historic string instruments including several Stradivaris and del Gesus, was purchased by hedge fund managers Seth and Brook Taube. The twin bankers, whose Columbus Nova Partners fund was allegedly closed for poor performance, helped themselves to two Strads and gave the orchestra a 5-year loan on the rest.

For this act of deaccessioning, the NJSO was not roundly criticized in the press or condemned by their peers. No professional organization said, "okay, don't lend these guys any instruments". They were not censured by critics or made the goats of music bloggers. So - double standard, or what? Think about it. A museum's "product" is the display of art. An orchestra's "product" is the performance of music. The art that a museum collects gives it a particular strength, or personality. The orchestra's strength or personality is more complex, and depends on the type of music it performs, the skills of its players, and the personalities of the conductors it has had; but the instruments it acquires and uses are definitely a part of the mix, and perhaps the main component of the tonal qualities of its sound. Many orchestras will purchase or commission instruments according to certain principles of sound or taste. So the presence of 30 of the world's greatest string instruments on one stage is not exactly a minor aspect of the orchestra's sound. Replacing them with other, more modern and less sonorous, instruments is comparable to to the Metropolitan Museum saying, "You know, we could really fix the bottom line here if we just get rid of these Rembrandts and Vermeers and pull up some of that French neo-classical stuff out of the basement".

Now let's go back to some of the arguments against deaccessioning in the museum world: (a) it suggests that the museum leadership is sitting on its duff instead of fundraising (this would see to apply equally well in the music world); (b) it sends an awful message to people who might contribute artworks with the intention of improving a particular museum's holdings (contribution of instruments may be a less typical situation in music, but the argument is equally coherent when it applies); (c) it threatens to dismantle collections that were painstakingly built up over decades to represent a particular style or school (less compelling in this case, since this particular collection was acquired all at once and deaccessioned fairly quickly) (d) since the only works worth selling for this purpose are those of great merit which bring high prices, it is a sure road to the diminution of the status of the institution (ditto for an orchestra with a collection of fine instruments); and (e) it demoralizes patrons, staff, audiences, critics, and just about anyone else the museum might count as its base of support (no question the same applies in this case, in spades).

In fact, let's be blunt, the Axelrod transaction put the NJSO on the cultural map for the first time in its history, allowing it to compete for audience with the far more famous orchestra across the Hudson, and was an important factor in their ability to lure a world class conductor, Neeme Jarvi. And let's not forget, the National Gallery sold off two major paintings, and had plans (apparently now abandoned) to sell off a few more; whereas NJSO sold off what was essentially the single most important physical component of its sound!

But there are other facts that make this decision more complicated. Bringing the sound of the rest of the orchestra in line with what amounts to one of the most resonant string sections in the world
certainly would take a concerted (nyuk nyuk :-) effort. I suppose the storage, security and insurance costs must be considerable. The sale was executed only a few years after the purchase, before one could say that it was part of the NJSO tradition. And of course one can now add the standard recessionist logic, in-these-difficult-times-one-must-be-prepared-to-make-tough decisions: if they had not sold them when they did, would they be able to survive a major economic crisis?

All this, however, doesn't quite cut it as a reason to sell off the collection for operating expenses. For one thing, by the time the 5-year loan is up, the orchestra will have been using the collection for about 10 years. Those years will have been the ones in which the orchestra first drew serious attention in the music world, gained new status and audiences, and perhaps even lured a few of us across the river to check out the new sound. (I admit I have not gone to hear them yet, but it's been on my agenda. Like going to the Barnes Collection before they deaccession their original quarters. Even the Parrot can't take wing and fly to every worthwhile cultural event in this area.) Furthermore, none of these excuses would have been accepted in the art world as a reason to sell holdings in order to pay debt or operating expenses. That is considered just bad management, selling what will attract people tomorrow in order to pay what you owe today. Fool's gambit, is the thinking over in artland.

So what to make of all this? My basic instinct is that all the arguments and assumptions aren't getting to the heart of the problem, which seems to always lie a little below the surface of the institutional fracas. What it's about is that in a world where more and more people are willing to trade slot cars for video games, guitars for Guitar Hero, real life for Second Lives, real books for Kindles, real friends for Facebook "friends" and real thought for Twitters, cultural institutions have by default been saddled with the incredibly serious task of reminding us that our longstanding cultural traditions are actually still just as important as they always were, indeed moreso. They are, like it or not, responsible for reminding us that this painting, that building, that piece of music, are part of who we are - as persons, as New Yorkers (or even New Jerseyans, I guess), as Americans,
and why we should care that this is so. It is to our collective benefit, as I see it, that certain things which have inherent value and help define us should simply persist; that they don't just go away and turn into something else, become virtual or get replaced with some cheapened version after dumbing down the audience so much that they barely notice the difference. This is the burden that our museums, publishing houses, orchestras, landmark commissions and other cultural institutions have to bear. To protect what is there, sometimes for no more than the simple reason that it has been there for a long time, and that the place where it is is admired partly because this or that symbol is there and carries with it the sense of place and of tradition, is a responsibility of those who are entrusted with our cultural heritage. And that includes not only museums and libraries, but universities, who merit additional calumny for pigheadedness in posing a false dichotomy between a cultural trust and the bottom line. (Ultimately you can thank Reagan and his "revolution" for this, as that is the source of the ideological migration of university boards from seeing financial accountability as serving educational goals in the broadest sense, to seeing it as a justification for stripping away tenured chairs and academic freedom, as well as abandoning cultural leadership.)

I would say this preservationist sensibility even applies to something like Yankee Stadium, which, if there weren't plenty of other reasons to question the value for the City of replacing it, ought to have been preserved for no other reason than that it is one of America's historic ballparks and has been associated with one of America's most historic baseball teams. (I didn't ask whether you like them; I'd probably say the same about Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, FYI. Squawck!) The point is, it is incumbent on every cultural institution to be a sort of levee against gratuitous change; to the extent possible, the only change should be in the direction of enrichment of what is there already, not the utilitarian swapping of art or instruments or other cultural treasures for short term gains.

Do I think that any institution that ever sold anything to pay expenses should be condemned? No. If the question is really survival in a diminished form rather than disappearance off the face of the earth, we may have to accept the smaller loss. But even that is not an absolute truth. The O'Keefe paintings were given to Fisk wth the express mandate that they may not be sold - ever. It appears that the intent here is simply that the works shall not be used as collateral, regardless of the circumstances. This is not in the least mitigated by the shool's economic plight, and O'Keefe's heirs were right to sue to recover the works. (Though the judge's decision that the university must neither sell them nor return them was, at least for the time being, the best solution.) Moreover, to say that survival is really at stake reqires being intimately familiar with the finances, fundraising history, and possible alternatives for an institution. When I was a student at the Mannes College of Music, there was an effort to merge the school with the much larger Manhattan School of Music uptown. This was supposed to be an effort to "save" the school; it's financial condition was allegedly deteriorating, and Manhattan would have the resources to support much of Mannes and its staff. To make a long story short, the Board of Directors that made this decision was sued, removed by the Court for failure to carry out their fiscal responsibilities, and replaced with a new Board that was actually committed to the school. The merger effort was a kind of deaccessioning, not just of the building, which was soon abandoned anyway, but of the musical traditions that informed the school since it was founded. Mannes has a distinctive theoretical tradition and pedagogical philosophy, and this would have been diluted at best, or in all probability swallowed whole, as it was effectively collapsed into the Manhattan School curriculum. Ultimately, a much less toxic merger with the New School allowed Mannes to maintain its independence and musical traditions while obtaining the financial resources of a major university.

So, it is far from clear that every time an institution's board jumps up and says, "Sell, sell! We are deeply in debt!" everyone must pull out their handkerchiefs and weep for the troubled institution, or look the other way while they pawn their prized possessions. The presumption should not be one of innocence, but of guilt: boards are a mixture of wealthy, well-meaning and committed individuals, and lazy, rich, obstructive, neurotic and self-interested attention-getters and status-seekers. No one can know who is winning at any given moment, but when the Board says they just can't raise enough money or hire competent enough managers to keep the institution going without deaccessioning, it's time to be suspicious.

And it is not only lack of fundraising initiative that should be looked into. In the case of the National Academy, part of the story was the temporary replacement of the museum's Director with someone who had nonprofit management and fundraising experience, but no experience in the art world. The problem only intensifies when the board is responsible to a higher entity like a university, whose primary mission is not that of the cultural institution, and whose financial goals may at times conflict with its commitment to cultural goals. For any number of reasons, our instinct should be to keep things where they are. That won't always be right, and it won't always be possible, but we should have to be thoroughly convinced before we give up the principle and accede to deaccessioning.

So, there you go: another art-and-the-public-interest post from your friendly local Parrot. If I didn't have two other blogs, three or four books to write, an album to record and a fulltime job, I could get used to this. Or maybe I could deaccession one or two of my six lives and learn to focus. It is tempting.

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