Why must the museum have full control over whether or not a given work is sold? Why can’t the university overrule the museum? As important as the Rose is, it is also part of Brandeis University. Don’t the people charged with running the school have an obligation to do what they think is best for the university? Where does this principle of autonomy come from, and does it apply only to campus art museums?… I’m not defending the wisdom of Brandeis’s decision here. I just think it’s strange to say they had no right to make it.
Let me try to answer these questions. The reason to give museums control over their own fate is partly because, in a post-Brandeis world, potential donors will be extremely hesitant to donate any art to museums which don’t have control over their own fate. Up until now, we’ve lived in a world where parents implicitly promise to support their children, and not to murder them or amputate key limbs. But now that Brandeis and Iowa are starting to eat their own, the topology has changed in a radical way.
Precisely because parents like Brandeis have an obligation to do what they think is best for the university, they can no longer be trusted to do what is best for the musem. The Rose would clearly be in a much better situation right now if it had its own board of trustees (the university could even have a few board seats, but not a majority) and full control of its own endowment; the existing relationship between the museum and the university, including the 15% "tax" which the museum pays to the university whenever it raises funds, could be contractually enshrined. What’s more, any donor who wanted to give a painting to the university rather than to the museum would be perfectly free to do so; the university would then give the painting as a permanent loan to the museum.
Of course Brandeis has the right to do what it’s doing, and that’s what pains me: it’s far too easy. They could try to sell off the Rose’s art the hard way, while keeping the museum open, but instead they’ve discovered that if they just close the Rose entirely then selling off the art becomes much easier, and they get control of the Rose’s endowment. This kind of nuclear option was always theoretically possible, but no one ever gave it much thought until now, because no one had so much as threatened to do it. Well, all museum directors and fundraisers are certainly thinking about it now. And the ones who have a good relationship with their parents will probably be asking for much more legal independence, as a sign of the commitment of the parent to the museum.
My argument in favor of selling the Iowa Pollock was predicated on two important things: firstly that it be sold to another museum, in full concordance with the Ellis rule, and secondly that Mural, in particular, is a sui generis artwork — arguably the greatest and most important American painting of all time — and so considerations come into play with respect to this one particular painting that don’t apply to virtually any other possible deaccessioning.
Right now, however, such nice distinctions are being steamrollered by a rush to simply sell off museum treasures to the highest bidder, and the more valuable the painting the more likely it is to be sold. In this atmosphere, I’m not going to start trying to make the argument that selling this specific painting to that specific museum might actually be quite a good thing. There’s too much wrong going on to try to find a possible sliver of right, or acceptable.
The trustees of Brandeis are in no mood for compromise or debate; they’re not even talking about the fate of the 7,000-odd artworks which won’t be sold off. They made a hasty, drastic, and wrongheaded decision which will have unintended consequences across the land for decades to come. And I fear that we’re seeing the first of those consequences in Iowa.
I actually had dinner with Adrian Ellis, of Ellis Rule fame, this evening, and we talked a little about an alternative model for museums which I like very much: one where museums have much smaller permanent collections, and are lent art by foundations. This model tends to result in more of donors’ art ending up on musem walls than the model whereby donors donate their art directly to a museum: if one museum doesn’t want a certain piece, another might well do. It also nicely sidesteps deaccessioning rules, because foundations aren’t bound by them. What’s more, if a museum doesn’t own the art on its walls, it can’t be raped by its parent.
If there’s any silver lining to Brandeis’s decision, I hope that it is this: that the world will move more to this foundation-lending model, and away from the permanent-collection model which leaves the overwhelming majority of museums’ art in permanent storage, unseen for decades. But such a move will take a very long time. And right now the urgency is to protest as loudly as possible against the idea that every treasured masterpiece is a monetizable asset ripe for the selling.