Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A Message from Brian Allen: The National Academy Museum

Today we hear from guest poster Brian T. Allen, the Addison Gallery's Mary Stripp & R. Crosby Kemper Director, regarding recent developments at the National Academy Museum in New York:

Many of our supporters have asked me about the National Academy Museum’s controversial attempt to regain financial solvency through selling art from its permanent collection. The Association of Art Museum Directors has censured the National Academy for this step and has asked member institutions to withdraw loans from the National Academy and to suspend all planned collaborations with the museum.

I think the art museum directors did the right thing. Unfortunately, its decision puts the Addison in a bind since we had planned to collaborate with the museum on a show called Maverick Modernists organized by the Addison and traveling also to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Amon Carter Museum. We have, at the request of the Association of Art Museum Directors, dropped the National Academy and are now working to replace it with another venue.

Why is this issue so important? It is a central feature of museum ethics that art from a collection can only be sold to buy more art. There are good reasons for this. When trustees and curators make the decision to accept a work of art in a museum’s collection, they agree to hold it in trust for the education and enjoyment of the general public. Where the work of art is a gift, the donor gets a tax deduction. Art always joins a collection after an intellectual process in which curators and the director decide the object meets the museum’s standards and goals. It becomes part of the institution’s history. In selling art to pay the bills, a museum betrays the public trust and the carefully considered decisions of curators, directors, and trustees who accepted the sold object into the collection.

The National Academy’s decision, if anything, shows a cultural rift between curators and directors on the one hand and artists on the other. The National Academy is an artist-run organization. Its trustees are artists. In a way, it is understandable that artists see no problem with selling art to pay the bills since this is what they try to do each day.

Let’s, then, put aside issues of ethics and talk about the museum’s self-interest. As a practical matter, why should a donor give money to a museum if the donor knows the museum is ready and willing to sell art to run the place? That donor’s dollars are going to go to causes without assets to sell like the local symphony, an animal shelter, or another museum that doesn’t monetize its collection. I think the museum community’s uneasiness about selling art to pay operating expenses lies in part in this likely outcome. If selling art becomes an acceptable practice, we will very soon see, for instance, art from university museums sold to pay for a new hockey rink or simply to balance the university’s budget.

Many museums sell art to buy art but often it’s badly done. The museum world is awash with stories of a great object sold during a period when the artist was out of favor. Until the 1950s, many museums sold Hudson River landscapes because they were seen as derivative. A museum might sell a Renaissance painting thought to be, say, by the circle of Titian. Years later, better research and technology might show the picture was by Titian himself. Museums often sell art not through the transparent auction process but through dealers and brokers, sometimes leaving the question of whether or not the museum got the best deal possible. The ways to go wrong are abundant. I think it is best to sell art to buy art only when the sold art is duplicated in the collection.

The National Academy professes to have no other alternative. This is not the case. The museum owns an enormously valuable building on Fifth Avenue blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Recently I described the building in The New York Times as a "pretty prison." Its central location is hardly an advantage for the National Academy because it forces it to compete with all the other great cultural institutions on Fifth Avenue, from the Frick to the Cooper Hewitt to the Met to the Guggenheim to the Jewish Museum to the Neue Gallerie. Finding a niche and marketing it in this kind of environment is, in my view, impossible for a small museum like the National Academy. The museum would have been far better off selling the building, using part of the money to relocate to a site where it is more likely to succeed, and then keeping the rest as an endowment to give it financial stability. The National Academy is one of the country’s historically great museums. The museum does wonderful shows. Its artist base is enthusiastic and passionate. I hope it saves itself but selling the collection bit by bit is no way to do it.

Brian T. Allen
Mary Stripp & R. Crosby Kemper Director