Should museums deaccession art to pay staff?

This post comes out of a conversation between Rebecca Shulman and Jackie Delamatre. You can see other Museum Questions blog posts by Jackie Delamatre here and here.

Proceeds from the sale of non-living collections are to be used consistent with the established standards of the museum’s discipline, but in no event shall they be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections.

-American Alliance of Museums (AAM) code of ethics statement

Jackie: If there’s one thing about the pandemic that has been positive, it’s more frequent phone calls with colleagues and friends. It was one of those phone calls that led to this post. We found that we had been thinking about the same topic – albeit from different angles – as a museum director and freelance educator. That topic is the museum sacred cow of deaccessioning. 

Rebecca: It turned out our ideas started brewing after we listened to the same podcast. Malcolm Gladwell’s latest season of Revisionist History explores museum collecting. He reports on museums with valuable objects their curators have never even seen and argues that their resistance to deaccessioning is part of a “hoarding” impulse and should be reconsidered.

Jackie: I had taken to telling my freelancer colleagues agitating for pay equity that my new slogan was “Deaccession for a Living Wage.” It was meant to counter the replies all museums gave when asked why they could not raise pay. To a one, their explanation was: “We’re broke.” When I started thinking about all the objects they might own but never even see, I wondered why our lives as workers weren’t worth more to them than these forgotten objects? Could some smart, targeted deaccessioning help resolve pay equity issues made even worse by the pandemic?

These are the same pay equity issues that exacerbate other equity issues – such as racial diversity of the staff.

Rebecca: I wasn’t entirely sure that deaccessioning works as a solution to pay equity. Pay equity is a critical, ongoing issue; deaccessioning is a tactic that should be used only in emergencies, and is an option only for the few museums with sufficiently valuable collections. But for these museums to fire staff while retaining collections is wrong. 

I interviewed Lisa Cowan for Museum Questions a few months ago, and we discussed a similar issue with universities and endowments. She said, “Why would we let the lowest-paid staff members go at this moment, in order to hold onto our money for another day? It’s such a small-minded hoarder mentality…. what is the point of being a guardian of the Harvard endowment if the city of Cambridge that houses the University is in rubble?” 

Jackie: And there’s that word “hoard” again!

Rebecca and Jackie: To get to the bottom of some of these ideas we decided to interview three experts in different fields. Sally Yerkovich is a professor of museum anthropology at Columbia. Steven Lubar is a history professor at Brown, specializing in museums. Mark Gold is a lawyer, specializing in museum law. 

We interviewed them during three separate conversations, so each of them is only responding to the question we posed, not to each other. 

Andy Warhol, The Last Supper, Photo by A. Currell, from Flickr Creative Commons. The Baltimore Museum of Art is one of many museums looking at deaccessioning, and facing challenges from museum stakeholders. Learn more in this article from Baltimore Magazine.

Rebecca and Jackie: Sally, Mark, Steven — Why do museums have this rule about deaccessioning? 

Sally Yerkovich:  Museums have this rule because museum collections are considered to be educational or cultural resources, not financial resources. Collections are not a financial resource. They are a limited resource, and once they are gone, they are gone. If you sell a painting at the core of your interpretive goals, you no longer can fulfill that goal. If you sell that painting and use it for salaries, it won’t last forever; it will only last for as long as it takes you to spend it, and then where will you get the money for salaries?

Mark Gold: My personal belief is that the rule came about in response to a FASB initiative in the late 1980’s and was developed to avoid transparency [about the value of a museum’s financial holdings] because it might lessen the desire of donors to make donations. Now that there are discussions about equitable compensation and social justice being coequal to collections, the rule is receiving long overdue reexamination.

These rules are accounting principles, not ethics and not best practices. [It allows museums to not list collections as assets or donated objects as financial donations.] It’s up to boards of trustees, vested with the legal and fiduciary duty to the museum and its mission, to determine what is best for their own institution.

Steven Lubar: In 1974, responding to bad publicity after the Met had deaccessioned artwork in order to buy better art, museum philosopher Stephen Weil wrote that, “The wealth of a museum tends to become concentrated in its collection. Unless some of that wealth is allowed to flow back into new programs, the museum may end with a first-class collection [and] a second-class staff.” He urged selling off collections that “lie fallow” and using the funds for operating expenses. The vitality that more staff, exhibits, and programs would bring would attract donors. 

Weil changed his mind on deaccessioning a few years later, and, wary of bad press, the museum community backed off, too. I think Weil’s earlier argument still holds. Museums have to balance their several goals: collections, education, public service. Drawing a red line around collections ties their hands. In a 1991 overview, museum lawyer Marie Malaro stressed the importance of good process – control of collections, periodical review, written procedures – as a guard against hasty decisions, but she encouraged making decisions, including deaccessioning. That still seems good advice. 

Sally: Glenn Lowry [the Director of MoMA] has sometimes advocated that the money from deaccessioning should be able to go into an endowment to support educational programming. That’s a little bit different than if you use it straight out – presumably you are just using the interest or a certain percentage of the capital, so you are still maintaining the capital to shore up your institution. The Brooklyn Museum is deaccessioning now to put money into an endowment for collections care. 

Image of the Broolyn Museum. Photo by apollonia666 from Flickr Creative Commons. The Brooklyn Museum deaccessioned 12 artworks in October to fund collections care. Read this Hyperallergic article for more information.

Rebecca and Jackie: The pandemic has brought to light pay equity issues in the museum field. Many contractors, for instance, have been agitating to be paid a living wage. As a rule, museums generally answer that they are “too broke” to pay higher wages. Could changes to deaccessioning rules possibly help their cause? Or could deaccessions only work as a temporary stop gap measure in this current emergency?

Steven: Michael O’Hare, a public policy professor at the University of California-Berkeley, calls AAM rules on deaccessioning “an administrative decision elevated by little more than assertion to the level of a professional ethical principle,” and posits that museums should sell collections to fund the things they say are important, like free admission and education. And, presumably, better pay for staff.

But the collection shouldn’t be thought of as a piggy-bank, to be broken into as needed. One could imagine thinking of it as a parallel endowment; collection objects might be sold to create a new endowment to meet the other goals of the museum. That fits with the way museums use deaccessioning to reshape their collection, a balancing of long term and short term needs. 

Mark: Actually, and sadly, the pandemic overwhelmed the vigorous debate that was already underway about pay issues. Clearly, opening the door to using the proceeds of deaccessioning for purposes beyond acquisition and direct care presents an opportunity to explore funding for those admirable causes (as well as social justice, access, diversity, etc.) by putting the priority of the collection into perspective.  Many observers, I among them, believe that given AAMD’s April statement, there will be no going back.  Some of my thinking on this can be found in this Comment piece I co-authored for The Art Newspaper.

Rebecca and Jackie: It’s hard to fully separate deaccessioning from another source of wealth museums do not or cannot spend from: endowment funds. Does the COVID pandemic and its economic impact constitute enough of an emergency that museums should tap into endowments to retain staff?

Steven: Many universities and large foundations are pulling funds from their endowments, or increasing the payout, to meet the dramatic needs of the moment. Some institutions are borrowing against their endowment instead; interest rates are low, and returns on endowments are high. Endowments can have legal restrictions on spending, but many museums have “quasi-endowment” funds that they treat as endowments, but which they don’t need to keep sacrosanct. Endowments must always be managed to balance present and future needs, and the balance of those needs changes over time. It’s hard to argue that present needs are not extreme. 

Sally: That is up to individual museums and depends upon the endowment funds. Some are restricted legally, so a museum would need to go to court to get that restriction changed. Others are restricted by the Board of Trustees, so those could be used if the Board felt that the use of the funds should be changed and the institution should be allowed to dip into the principal. Again, it’s a really slippery slope. I’ve worked for institutions that have done that and spent their whole endowment. They then need to raise all of the money they spend every year, and they are much weaker institutions as a result, with skeletal staffs to carry out their mission.

Mark: It goes to the question of the purpose of endowments as “rainy day funds.”  At the moment, it seems like it’s pouring outside, and the rain is coming through the roof.  There is a philosophical tension about allocating cost and benefit between the present and the future. 

Sally: One thing that underlies all this is the assumption that all museums should continue to exist. We have a lot of museums. Some of them may need to rethink their missions, and how they operate, and think creatively about mergers or collaborations with other institutions to reduce their costs and become more sustainable. This moment is an opportunity to really think long and hard about what museums are doing and how effective they are and how they can be more effective and sustainable.

Rebecca and Jackie:  Are there other examples of museum ethics that have changed over time? What are the appropriate moments to rethink ethical guidelines like this one?

Steven: Ethical guidelines have changed, and they’ll continue to change. Hemingway wrote that going broke happens “Gradually and then suddenly.” Ethical guidelines change that way, too.

When NAGPRA was proposed, museums protested that it would destroy collections and research programs, that it was unethical. It’s proven to be the exact opposite, and now it’s a central part of museum ethics.

We are, perhaps, at a moment of great change in attitudes about colonialism and racism, as well as a moment of crisis. Ethics will change to reflect the new world.

Mark: I think it’s a distraction to call these ethics. They are practices. If they truly were ethics, why were they so quickly abandoned with the pandemic [when the Association of Art Museum Directors made a change to these rules about deaccessioning]? 

AAMD’s action was an acknowledgement that, due to the pandemic, there was no consequence for museums that behaved in ways they define as unethical.  Either the rules were not really about ethics, or ethics are things we ignore when it’s hard. 

Magnolia, by John La Farge. Photo by Irina from Flickr Creative Commons. The Berkshire Museum deaccessioned a number of works in 2017-18, in order to save the museum, and was widely condemned. Learn more in this article from the Center for art law.

Jackie: In these interviews, I was struck by the degree to which Sally, Mark and Steven agree that deaccessioning shouldn’t be entirely off the table, and that deaccessioning could have a role in addressing pay equity issues if done through a thoughtful process of creating specific endowments targeted for those needs. 

Rebecca: I’m interested in the intent of this rule, and the question of whether this is a financial policy that amounts to lack of transparency about assets that might discourage donations, or an ethical issue ensuring that collections remain the heart of museum work.

I’ll also note that as these experts spoke about creating endowments to fund areas of work, we never quite got into the question of whether museums might create endowments that do not add to their current work, but only add to current staff pay. This would require museums to prioritize equity and fair pay, and to “sell” this to boards and donors who may not think the same way. Which is to say, Jackie, I think I’ve been convinced that museums could use deaccessioning combined with endowments as a way to restructure salaries and move toward pay equity. 

Jackie: I’m so excited to hear that, Rebecca! I know there are many museum staffers who will be interested in what these experts have to say. My fellow contractual workers and I often feel that the burden is on us to point to where the funds could come from to pay us a living wage. In the end, though, I think our experts revealed the truth behind the quote (often attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.):  “Budgets are moral documents.”

Anyway, this is where it’s great to have a blog format and potential commenters to continue the discussion. I hope others in the field will share their thoughts and ideas for next steps.

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