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N.Y.'s National Academy Museum a warning shot to MOCA?

December 11, 2008 |  9:17 am

Nachurch When the Assn. of Art Museum Directors last week called for a virtual boycott of New York's National Academy Museum, which had violated ethical standards by selling two Hudson River School masterpieces from its collection to cover operating expenses, many were surprised by the speed of the censure. The group doesn't often respond quickly, but this time things were different: The news broke Dec. 5, and the AAMD acted the same day.

Now, the American Assn. of Museums -- which represents not just art museums, but those for science, history and other disciplines -- has reportedly taken action to remove the National Academy Museum from its list of accredited institutions. Without accreditation, the NAM won't be getting the kinds of loans it got for its current George Tooker retrospective and its show of moody landscapes by Ralph Blakelock. Accreditation is necessary for a museum to actively participate in the field, and the Tooker and Blakelock shows are chockablock with loaned works from accredited museums that are not likely to accommodate such requests going forward.

I don't know about the AAM, but clearly the AAMD moved swiftly for at least two reasons -- one general, one specific.

In general, America's financial turmoil is exerting pressure on all museums, and art collections held in public trust are now at greater risk of deaccession-for-cash than ever before. Urgency begets urgency.

Specifically, the fiscal crisis at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art has prompted some members of its board of trustees to consider selling works from its valuable collection to "solve" their problem. That horrible option is still on the table and is expected to be discussed again at MOCA's Dec. 16 board meeting.

The governing board of the New York-based AAMD is acutely aware of MOCA's situation. Four of its 19 members are directors of Southern California art museums. The NAM smack-down is, at least in part, plainly meant to send a loud signal to Grand Avenue. Not only will deaccessioning from the stellar collection to raise cash not solve MOCA's problem, it will make matters far worse.

--Christopher Knight

Photo: Frederic Edwin Church, "Scene on the Magdalene," 1854. Credit: National Academy Museum

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