By Mary Baily Wieler
Rather than rush to judgement, I spoke to a variety of museum professionals and board members. These two museums faced very different financial challenges, but a consistent theme presented itself: boards need to be constantly assessing the competitive landscape in which they reside and cannot be complacent when change occurs.
When the Corcoran was established, there was no National Gallery offering free admission, nor did its art school have a rival George Washington University Fine Arts department in its backyard. Facing a structural deficit and declining enrollment at the school, the board of the Corcoran looked to many strategies to boost revenue, all of which proved insufficient.
Likewise, Wilmington, Delaware was a corporate headquarters town in 2003 when the expansion of the Delaware Art Museum began. With plans to include additional gallery space, an education center, and collections care facilities, the campaign financing strategy appeared sound. Like many not-for-profits, the Delaware Art Museum had used credit-enhanced debt instruments, only to suffer substantial losses during the banking crisis in 2008. By 2014, many board classes after the approval of the expansion, the leadership was limited in how to respond to the construction-related debt. To make matters worse, the departure of several corporate entities and the consolidation of others resulted in a changing community landscape. The Delaware Art Museum board was faced with a tough decision.
Both boards deliberated for years on how to resolve these complex problems. Each museum sought the advice of a number of experts: financial, consulting, legal, government, auction houses and appraisers. They then ultimately decided what was best for their community: in one case to liquidate and in the other to sell museum-purchased art and retire the debt.
Being mindful that many of our members have faced financial challenges in their museum marketplaces, MTA has addressed these issues regularly at semi-annual forums over the last 4 years. Some member museums have found success in merging with others, including LancasterHistory.org, the Cincinnati Museum Center, The Perot Museum and The Demuth Museum/Lancaster Museum of Art. We have heard from several museums that restructured away from government ownership: The Oakland Museum, The Detroit Institutes of Art, and the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. In 2014, Harry Hopper, the Corcoran Board Chair, spoke candidly about the board dynamic in a crisis and how his museum eventually reached the decision to close and turn their assets over to George Washington University and the National Gallery. In the end, thankfully, none of the museums above were forced to resort to selling donated objects.
So when news broke in late July about the Berkshire Museum’s decision to sell prominent works from its collection to fund operational projects, the red flag went up immediately. The Museum is not a MTA member, so I followed the story with the perspective of an outsider and sought to learn more than what was in the press.
One surprising comment came from Murray Tarnapoll, MTA 3rd Vice Chair and former Board Chair of The Queens Museum in NYC:
I was born and raised in Pittsfield, Mass. I have very fond childhood memories of spending hours and hours as a preteen in the museum’s weekend educational program, running around the various galleries with a quiz card and returning triumphantly with it all filled out. I’m sure this wonderful experience was one of the driving forces that led me to museum board involvement.
But Murray moved to New York City as a teenager and has not returned to the Berkshire Museum in a long time. His family’s departure from Pittsfield was one of many. The Pittsfield community no longer resembles the demographics of the time of the Berkshire Museum’s founding in 1903. In the last 30 years, there has been a 25 percent decline in the regional population surrounding the museum.
After considering the Berkshire’s predicament, I had to wonder if there aren’t extenuating circumstances that make deaccessioning objects for operational expenses the best option for a volunteer board. In the Berkshire’s case, its community changed: demographics changed and significant new art museums emerged, making fundraising and earned income a challenge for an eclectic and encyclopedic museum. The board has sought counsel from experts and even surveyed its community stakeholders.
As an Association, we have difficulty condoning the sale of iconic works, but feel that this situation is more nuanced. Are we as a field saying that museums are ethically bound to continue “business as usual” and never change their missions? Should boards’ hands be tied by collections donated decades or even centuries earlier? At what point does the survival of the organization outweigh professional standards?
The subject of deaccessioning for operational expenses is not going away. There are many museums boards facing full collection storage areas, limited options for building new galleries, and otherwise wondering how to keep the doors open. Some museums have employed the “Goodwill Dumpster Approach,” to accessions in the past, leaving collection storage full. One trustee panelist at our Spring 2017 Forum in New Orleans expanded, “It can be easy to end up with more personal cast-offs than treasure.” Perhaps it’s time for the industry to create a safe harbor for boards under siege and offer them the resources to succeed. Censure and revoking accreditation may not be the answer, especially when their fiduciary duty is at stake. Could we as an industry create a fiscal SWAT team to help museums in crisis navigate challenging waters? MTA would be happy to be a convener. We have a team of trustee experts ready to participate in helping museum boards.
The Museum Trustee Association views its mission of enhancing the effectiveness of museum trustees as educational and collaborative. As a group of past and current museum board members, we do not see ourselves as a policy-setting organization but rather as a source of information to equip Museum Trustees as they implement field-wide best practices in all of their governance affairs. While the article above is intended to provide an opportunity for open dialogue, MTA firmly believes that in all matters of deaccessioning, the guidelines of the American Alliance of Museums set the industry-wide standard. For more information on field-wide best practices, we invite you to read “Questions and Answers about Selling Objects from the Collection”, published by AAM on September 23, 2017, and AAM’s 2016 White Paper entitled “Direct Care of Collections”.