In Museums We Trust: Analyzing the Mission of Museums, Deaccessioning Policies, and the Public Trust

By Tam, Sara | Fordham Urban Law Journal, March 2012 | Go to article overview

In Museums We Trust: Analyzing the Mission of Museums, Deaccessioning Policies, and the Public Trust


Tam, Sara, Fordham Urban Law Journal


Introduction    I. The Mission of Museums and the Recent Deaccessioning       Debate       A. Background of American Museums          1. Types of Museums and Their Organizational             Structure          2. Exhibiting Art and Sharing Cultural Knowledge          3. Developing and Managing a Collection       B. Understanding Public Trust Theories          1. Museums as a Public Trust          2. The Public's Trust in Museums       C. History and Development of Deaccessioning Policies          1. Professional Codes of Ethics          2. Judicial Analysis of Deaccessions          3. Current and Proposed State Legislation             a. New York State Board of Regents Rules             b. Proposed New York State Legislation  II. Evaluating the Prohibitions on the Use of Deaccessioning      Proceeds      A. Dictating Deaccessioning Policies: Whose Role?         1. Museum Professional Organizations         2. Judicial Analysis         3. State Legislatures      B. Examining Trends in Deaccessioning Positions         1. The Deaccessioning Absolutist Position         2. A Restrained Approach: A Compromise         3. A Broader Perspective on Deaccessioning III. A Balanced Approach to Preserving the Public Interest in      Museums      A. Museums Should Lead the Development of         Guidelines for Collections Management         1. Museums Know Themselves Best         2. Judicial Analysis Lacks a Comprehensive            Approach         3. State Regulation and Legislation Do Not            Accommodate the Diversity of Museums      B. Enforcement and Creating an Opportunity for Review      C. Promoting a New Conception of Deaccessioning That         Can Protect the Public's Trust in Museums         1. An Absolute Prohibition Against Deaccessioning            is Inconsistent with Today's Museum         2. The Prevalent Restrained Approach Does Not            Adequately Protect the Public Interest in Museums         3. A Broader Approach Allows for a Balanced            Treatment of the Museum's Multifaceted Mission Conclusion 

INTRODUCTION

New York City almost lost its leading institution dedicated to the appreciation of traditional folk art (1) in the fall of 2011. (2) The American Folk Art Museum (Folk Art Museum), a "stubborn, single-minded little institution," is the world's center of folk-outsider art, a source of inspiration to the modern art movement, and a counterpoint to contemporary life. (3) The fifty-year-old museum was on the brink of closing and dissolving after defaulting on a $31.9 million loan taken out in 2009 that had been used to build a new flagship site. (4) At the time, the Folk Art Museum was forced to contemplate how it should disperse its collection of works after closing down the museum)

In California, the Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art and Science (Fresno Metropolitan) met its end shortly after completing a heavily financed renovation that was intended to revive the museum. (6) The museum was an important influence on a community that has limited museums and education-related activities. (7) After defaulting on a fifteen million dollar municipal loan, the twenty-five-year-old museum's last day open to the public was January 5, 2010. (8) In winding up its affairs, the Fresno Metropolitan sold its collection at auction, using the proceeds toward paying off its debts. (9)

The difficulties of these two institutions illustrate how museums across the country are facing financial challenges and struggling to pursue their mission to acquire, preserve, and exhibit their collections for the benefit of the public. (10) Faced with financial hardship, however, some museums have decided to remove artwork from their collections, a process known as "deaccessioning," (11) and to sell this artwork for cash critically needed for the museum to stay open to the public. (12) More often than not, the alternative is closing the museum. (13)

Deaccessioning is one of the most debated and sensitive issues for museums today.

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