Tuesday, May 17, 2011

UPDATED: Latest on New York's deaccessioning criteria

NEW YORK. When the "emergency" regulations on deaccessioning finally expired without renewal last October, an ad-hoc committee to the New York State Board of Regents was formed to, as the Maine Antique Digest puts it, "review and make recommendations on the deaccessioning process to the cultural education committee and the full board." By "deaccessioning process" what is meant is both the enactment and enforcement of deaccessioning criteria to be applied on a permanent basis to museums and historical societies under the Board of Regents' chartering (notably excluding the Metropolitan, "which has a legislative charter").

The proposed criteria, published on March 2 in the State register (p.14 onwards), include deaccessioning to remove an item established to be inauthentic; repatriate or return an item to its rightful owner (may seem obvious but several European museums have had problems in the past precisely because the law did not state this as a criterion for deaccessioning); return an item to a donor due to the institution's inability to satisfy donor restrictions (often a highly subjective inquiry) and deaccessioning to "accomplish refinement of collections."

What, if anything, does that last criterion accomplish? Arguably nothing since as drafted it is completely open to abuse and will neither ensure possession in the future (donors' big fear) nor guarantee public access to artworks held in "public trust" (i.e., remedying the incomprehensible reality that collections are largely in storage while museums are increasing on the verge of financial collapse and closure). The criterion is quintessentially representative of that deaccessioning "exercise in smoke and mirrors." Just as before, in practise museums would be free to deaccession pretty much as they like and the only real restriction is in the use of the proceeds that can be used "only for the acquisition of collections or the preservation, conservation, or direct care of collections" (not without its own shortcomings and contradictions). Donn Zaretsky is of the view that "museums have succeeded in guiding the process to a place where the rules make them do what they were already doing" except now (and this is important), "that exercise in smoke and mirrors -- will have the force of law."

UPDATE: a few more (varying) views on the new rules (from The Art Law Blog):
  • Sergio Sarmiento (VLA Associate Director, artist and blogger): "Among the more perplexing of criteria is the requirement that the art 'item has failed to retain its identity.' What the hell does this mean? It was once a painting but it is now a frisbee?"
  • Judith Dobrzynski (arts journalist and blogger): "Not bad."
  • Amy Goldrich (attorney): "[A]lthough the new rules appear to require a more carefully justified decision to deaccession, at least one criterion -- accomplishing refinement of collections - could end up being a virtual 'get out of jail free' card."

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