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Would MOCA barter art for solvency? Co-chairman says 'probably not'

December 15, 2008 |  6:26 pm

Tom_untermanAs the drama unfolds over whether and how L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art will solve its financial crisis, fans of MOCA and museums in general are hoping it won't choose what some would consider a doomsday option: selling art from the collection to pay off general expenses or satisfy debts.

Two leading service organizations, the American Assn. of Museums and the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, say flatly that it's unethical to sell objects from a collection -- "deaccession" is the technical term -- except to raise funds to buy more pieces.

The AAMD already has come down on New York's National Academy Museum for breaking the no-sell rule -- possibly as a way of warning MOCA and other museums with financial problems to resist the temptation of converting art to cash. The reason it's considered unethical is that museums' fundamental role is to keep beautiful, fascinating and meaningful works of nature and humankind in their community and in the public domain. Hawking them in the marketplace would, for those who set the standards for museums, be akin to Uncle Sam raiding the National Archives and putting the Declaration of Independence out to bid to help retire the national debt.

Last week, MOCA co-chairman Tom Unterman, above, had this to say about deacessioning in the board leadership's first on-the-record interview about MOCA's crisis:

"It’s certainly one of the things that logically appears on an agenda. To people who look at a museum as a business, it says, 'You’ve got a lot of assets and you’re in a cash crunch and they’re marketable assets, sell 'em.' The museum is not like a normal business company. You’ve got a lot of other fiduciary duties and issues and objectives to serve. If we were in the position of the National Academy, where you weren’t able to pay your creditors, and we’re nowhere near that, then it would become more on the radar screen than it probably is now. Is it a logical option? Yes. Is it a probable option? No, probably not. I don’t want to get way ahead of the board on this because they all may wake up one morning and say that’s the best thing to do, but I’d be surprised."

Jane_nathansonIn a separate interview, Jane Nathanson, a longtime MOCA board member, also said that selling art is an idea she now needs to "entertain," even if it's not something she would like to see happen.

"I think these are dire times," she said, "and I certainly have strong feelings about deaccessioning art for any other reason but buying more art.... I know those are the guidelines, and they're the guidelines I have always gone by, but sometimes one has to look at alternate possibilities...."

Nathanson went on to wonder aloud, in general terms, whether a museum in danger of going under would be justified in selling a particularly valuable piece in order to save itself. “Is that something to be considered with the art market as inflated as it has been? Possibly. I’m not saying it should be done, but at different times one needs to think of different solutions. It’s a solution I would entertain. Is it one that would be the best? I don’t know."

In any case, Nathanson suggested, she would want the museum to seek legal guidance from the state attorney general before putting anything from its collection on sale to satisfy debts.

-- Mike Boehm

Top photo: Tom Unterman. Credit: Rob DeLorenzo /Sipa Press

Bottom photo: Jane Nathanson with artist Chris Burden at the opening of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum.

Credit: Jeff Vespa / WireImage.com   

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