Thursday, July 02, 2009

How to Sell a Masterpiece (without considering the public interest)

If a museum decides to sell an object, does the institution have any responsibility beyond maximizing monetary value?

James Snipes, legal counsel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston described [the Albright-Knox decision to sell their pieces at auction] as an "optics issue, rather than an economic one. Going to auction may not provide the best return, but it is the most transparent" way of selling an object. Museums not only "have a fiduciary duty to maximize value when they deaccession objects, but they have to be seen fulfilling that duty."
What is missing here is the duty museums owe to the public (not just the local public but the public at large) to make sure that artworks that have entered the public domain at the cost to the public of a tax deduction do not disappear from public view into the living room of a collector. Maximizing value for the institution at the cost of public value is a bad deal for taxpayers.



Most museums have in the past emphasized that they render a service to the general public and have, in some cases, declared that they serve humanity. (Cuno, Neil MacGregor and Phillipe de Montebello).They have also advanced their public obligation as explanation for not being in a position to return looted objects. Museums have benefit from tax exemptions and other advantages. Surely, they have to take into account public interest in trying to dispose of artworks in the museums. Legal action can be pursued to restrain them from proposed dispositions that may affect public interest. Trustees do not have unlimited powers.

Kwame Opoku

Hels said...

I am Australian, so I have a real problem selling public assets off to private profiteers in general, be they banks, railway services, universities, electricity companies etc etc. Those assets belong to us, the community.

In architecture and the arts, even more so. My last two posts are about beautiful art legacies lost to the public forever:
1. Cheadle Royal Hospital: stained glass, designed by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. The chapel was not deemed necessary by the new private owners and the windows were split up and flogged off.
2. Gropius' Chicago legacy lost. Much of Michael Reese Hospital was/will be destroyed by pro-development cultural vandals.

I despair
Art and Architecture, mainly