Raiding the Art Vault to Cover Museum Budget Holes

Danaë and the Shower of Gold, 1621-1623, by Orazio Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. (Getty Museum/Open Content Program)
Concentrate on cuts in spending, and leave the art alone.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE D anae was the mother of the Greek hero, Perseus, courtesy of Zeus. Her father was the king of Argos. The oracle at Delphi told the king that his daughter’s son would murder him, and given that oracles in those days had good track records, the king promptly put Danae in permanent lockdown in a tall bronze tower with a tiny opening for air and light.

Orazio Gentileschi (1563–1639) was smitten with Danae’s story since it involved sex — always a crowd pleaser — and gold, attractive in 1623, when Gentileschi painted Danae and the Shower of Gold but coveted anywhere, anytime, especially today given the government’s convincing attempt to murder the economy and impoverish us all. Titian and Rembrandt depicted Danae, too. I picked Gentileschi’s because the Getty purchased his version for $35 million just last year, when museums had money, before the government threw, coincidentally, 35 million people out of work in a few weeks.

And Zeus thought he made the fastest moves.

Danae happened to be Zeus’s flavor of the month, and Zeus, like the Chinese coronavirus, goes wherever he wants. Zeus visited her as a cloud of gold, sometimes coins, sometimes raindrops, depending on the storyteller. He then reengineered himself into flesh and blood, enjoyed a sizzling matinee in the tall bronze tower, and thence sprung Perseus, who later chopped Medusa’s head off, married Andromeda, and became king of Mycenae. And he killed Danae’s father, his grandfather, along the way, as the oracle had predicted. You see, lockdowns don’t always work.

Those old Delphi oracles, they knew their fortune-telling, too. We need to get some working for us, travel ban or no travel ban. Among the Chinese coronavirus’s wreckage are heaps of failed computer models whipped up by experts and public-health bureaucrats who might have done better had they gone to Delphi. Our modern oracles from the science establishment are about as reliable as weathermen and economists.

The new climate has exposed a “desperate times mean desperate measures” crowd among the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), the high-end museum world’s professional organization. Museums are taking a terrible revenue hit. No gold coins fallin’ from the sky anywhere near them. The only golden showers in the news today are in Christopher Steele’s pee-pee dossier — you know, the one the FBI used to try to overthrow Trump.

As I noted a few days ago, AAMD’s board passed two resolutions last month amending its ethical standards. First, it won’t punish museums that tap restricted endowment funds to pay for operating expenses. Second, it won’t punish museums that sell art and use the money to pay for collection-care expenses. I wrote about the first issue on Wednesday. Now, I’ll write about the sale of art.

It isn’t illegal to sell a museum’s art to raise money unless the art was a gift with a “do not sell” condition. AAMD deems it unethical, as do most museums’ individual codes of ethics, if the money is used for any purpose other than buying more art. Most museums have active programs to sell art they no longer want, raising money to buy art they do.

AAMD has now decreed that it will not punish museums that sell art to raise money to balance their budgets.

This is a bad idea. We can make it simple: “A museum can sell art in its collection only to buy art.” We can consider this a sin, period, warranting the wrath of Zeus, Isis, Inti, Nana Buluku, not to mention God. It’s not that easy, though.

Bather Gazing at Herself in the Water, c. 1910, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Oil on canvas. (Barnes Foundation/Open Access)

Selling Art to Raise Cash Isn’t New

Raiding the vault to procure cash isn’t new, and it’s not always wrong. I wouldn’t have lost sleep had the Barnes Collection sold a few of its hideous late Renoir nudes to stabilize its finances. The Barnes was not a museum. It was a school, and Dr. Barnes was clear that his collection was a teaching tool. The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass., sold millions in art to finance its transition to a museum devoted to science and children. That’s fine. It changed its mission. That’s the trustees’ prerogative. I fought it — it’s not far from my home — because I thought that particular change was a flaky idea promulgated by flaky people.

The National Academy of Design was scorned and bullied beyond decency by AAMD because it sold three Hudson River paintings in 2008 to keep it going. The NAD, at the time, considered itself a museum, but it really wasn’t, and it certainly isn’t today. It’s a service organization for the best American artists and an academy, membership in which is a prestigious prize.

Historically black colleges started selling art about 20 years ago to fix longstanding, structural financial problems. They had “museums,” but they were podunk places. I can’t say I cared much. AAMD hammered them because these sales were camel noses under the tent. In any event, when Fisk University tried to sell a Georgia O’Keeffe painting for desperation cash, the Crystal Bridges Museum saved the day. It bought a half-interest in the picture, giving the school millions.

Brandeis University tried to close its Rose Art Museum in 2009 to fix the university’s money problems caused by the financial crisis. The trustees wanted to sell the art. This reaped a whirlwind of angry protest. The art’s donors were still alive and sensate enough to be furious.

The Rose was a real place, too. It had a long, serious scholarly mission. Unlike the Barnes, the Fisk, and the National Academy of Design, it collects and cares for art and interprets it, both for the benefit of the public. It’s an authentic museum. Many, not all, alumni were embarrassed by the bad publicity. The plan collapsed, and the president was canned. Chalk one up to the good guys. It was a terrible idea and an assault on culture.

In 2013, Randolph-Macon College, after years of trying, raised $25 million for budget relief by selling its museum’s great George Bellows painting to the National Gallery in London. Sending the picture to another museum excised the painful pricker. The college museum wasn’t an AAMD member anyway. The grasping president of La Salle University and its trustees gutted its museum, purportedly to pay for its new strategic plan, but it also had a big deficit. Who knows where the money went. I was happy to see that most of the art failed to sell at the Christie’s auction.

Cases of art selling to balance budgets have occurred with greater frequency, starting with the financial crisis, first in outlier places such as the Fisk and the Barnes, then in places like the Rose that are actually real museums. Now, AAMD has decided to approve the practice, though for a limited time.

Reconstruction of the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, 1894, by Albert Tournaire. (Wikimedia)

Problems with Selling Art

There are many problems with selling art for operating expenses. First, AAMD has now approved sales of art only for expenses related to “collection care,” but this is disingenuous. It’s fake cover, because “collection care” is almost anything. It’s prorating the electric bill based on the percentage of museum square footage that art storage takes. Curator and registrar salaries, guards, and insurance are all collection-care expenses. So, AAMD is trying to make its new rule look targeted — “it’s still all about the collection” — when it’s really all about money, and the guardrails are low.

The second problem is the art itself. Even in a decent small place, the vast majority of art isn’t worth much. Sending the art that’s never displayed to Christie’s or Sotheby’s probably won’t pay the bills. Art is almost never an appreciating investment. It’s a consumable. Only the best blue-chip art makes serious money, but that’s the art that museum visitors want to see.

In the case of big museums with hundreds of thousands of objects, though, storage vaults are filled with paintings that would get $100,000 or $250,000 or $1 million. Will they sell art to close very high deficits? I wonder if they have the nerve.

And once the art’s sold, it’s gone for good. The museum world is filled with cases of out-of-fashion art sold by well-meaning people that evolves over time into coveted art. Tastes change.

Another problem is donor relations, and I’m not talking about living donors whose art goes out the door. That’s a distinct political and diplomatic problem. Even if the donors are dead, it’s good form to alert the family, but not for permission since, barring a “do not deaccession” condition, it is the museum’s to sell.

Once an institution’s donor community learns it’s selling art to balance its budget, it will vote with its feet and take future art-giving elsewhere. Why shouldn’t it?

The biggest problem in selling art for budget relief doesn’t pertain to the museums with scrupulous trustees, which is most museums. These places respect their museum’s role as custodian of the past. They have the commitment needed to open their own checkbooks and to work with directors to make budget cuts to protect the museum’s long-term integrity and stability. Usually, but these are trying times.

But the museums with sharks and charlatans as trustees, or the ones with know-nothing bozos — these are the museums whose art is most threatened. Rather than pull out their own checkbooks, these trustees might very well look to the art to do the heavy lifting. These are mostly museums in places without a long philanthropic tradition or a thriving arts tradition. Their directors will come under pressure.

Also vulnerable are college and university art museums. They’re part of parent institutions. Often, college and university presidents and trustees, like Brandeis’s or La Salle’s, don’t know much about art. Directors at these places are often midlevel in the academic pecking order. They don’t have access to trustees to plead a case that selling art for cash is bad. When trustees raided the Rose and La Salle’s museum, their directors and volunteers were clueless until it was a fait accompli.

Most threatened are museums that belong to the government. The federal government can print money, but Los Angeles County, San Francisco, Virginia, and North Carolina can’t. Their governments own prestigious museums packed with high-value art, and crashing their economies Pol Pot style has emptied their coffers. AAMD has virtually invited them to raid their museum walls. Under far better circumstances, it took all the connivance known to the Greek gods to keep Detroit’s masters from the city museum’s vaults when Detroit went bust.

Once word gets out that a museum is raising operating money by selling art, giving is bound to take a hit. Why should I give money to a museum that has art it’s willing to liquidate? It shows bad judgment. My church or animal shelter or high school doesn’t have assets to liquidate. Why not steer my money there?

Exterior view of The Museum of Modern Art, 53rd Street Entrance Canopy. The Museum of Modern Art Renovation and Expansion. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler. (Iwan Baan, Courtesy of MoMA)

Who Else Benefits?

The munchkins said, “Follow the yellow brick road.” The odious Mark Felt, Watergate’s Deep Throat, is supposed to have said, “Follow the money,” though it might have been Al Capone. Still, good thing to keep in mind.

Two museum-director friends told me this week, “Oh, no one will ever use it,” about the new power to sell art to pay the bills, guilt-free and without reprisal. AAMD wouldn’t have done a volte-face of this magnitude unless someone was going to benefit from it. Somebody had to push it.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the power structure at AAMD. Though the head of its trustees now is the director of the Saint Louis Museum of Art, the movers and shakers are really the big museums such as the Met. At least when I was an AAMD member, nothing substantial happened unless the Met, the National Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the big museums in Philadelphia and Boston supported it.

These big museums are the ones that currently have active, organized deaccession practices, selling things they no longer want and using the money to buy art they do, often contemporary art. Selling accessioned art isn’t simply a case of walking through the vault and pointing at paintings on the rack while intoning, “This can go, that can go.” There’s a vetting process. Is it ever displayed? Do we have things like it that are better? How did we get it? If it was a gift, is the donor alive? Will a sale piss him off? How much can we get?

The big museums and many medium-size museums have this kind of process in place. Each curatorial department has a list of things that can go out the door to Christie’s or Sotheby’s, and if they don’t, both auction houses will enthusiastically suggest some candidates. “Follow the money.” It doesn’t take Agatha Christie, much less a Greek chorus, to see which museums have the motive, means, and opportunity.

I suspect that these museums propelled AAMD’s change of course. It’s likely that the museums with established deaccession programs will keep deaccessioning, diverting some of the money to “collection care” rather than buying art. Will we ever know? Museums selling art for cash are required by AAMD to disclose it in their annual reports and website. Is there such a thing as 1/100th-point type?

There’s another alternative, and that’s spending control. Glenn Lowry, the longtime director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, followed the money. He’s taking a budget axe and giving its spending the Medusa treatment, and chop, chop. Before museums liquidate art to raise cash or tap acquisitions funds to fill budget holes, they should look to my new hero.

Lowry and his trustees are cutting MoMA’s Fiscal Year ’21 budget from $180 million to $135 million. The museum’s exhibition and publication budgets are sliced roughly in half. All 60 open positions were eliminated. There’s a new early-retirement program. And he’s tackling MoMA’s crunch in the context of a big addition that’s just opened, with lots of new expenses. He’s realistic, and courageous. MoMA, like most New York museums, counts on paid tourist admissions. The tourist economy in New York, alas, is in a coma.

Lowry lives in the real world of dollars, cents, paychecks, and electric bills. The public-health establishment, let’s remember, is mostly government employees. Academics, the ones with all the failed models, have tenure. Their paychecks are fat and safe, and almost none practice medicine. Rather, they pronounce from Mount Olympus.

AAMD and the American Alliance of Museums are the two core museum-lobbying groups. AAM’s membership includes not only art museums but science and children’s museums, gardens, house museums, and historical societies. These two groups need to sharpen their elbows K Street–style and demand data, not airy-fairy models or readings from Madam Arcati’s crystal ball or even whispers in the ear from the oracle of Delphi. They need to demand data justifying everything government will demand from them on the road to reopening.

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