Published: March 17, 2009-- Selling parts of a collection to cover museum operating costs would be illegal under a bill introduced in the New York State Legislature late Tuesday afternoon. The bill, drafted by Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky in collaboration with the New York State Board of Regents and the Museum Association of New York, would prohibit museums from using proceeds from the sale of artworks "for traditional and customary operating expenses."
"These collections were not created as reservoirs of capital to be used for the benefits of the institution," said Mr. Brodsky, a Westchester County Democrat and a sponsor of the bill. "You keep selling paintings to keep the doors open and eventually you have open doors and no paintings."
"The goal here is to provide a consistent process in the museum community for dealing with these difficult issues," he added.
The bill was fueled by the National Academy Museum's sale in December of two Hudson River School paintings to shore up its finances, and by Brandeis University's January announcement that it would close its Rose Art Museum and sell the collection because of the large drop in its endowment. Similarly, last summer Fort Ticonderoga, the historic site in upstate New York, considered selling some artifacts to plug a $2.5 million shortfall, a proposal that is now off the table.
"The two notions of deaccessioning and debt have to be de-coupled," said Anne W. Ackerson, the director of the Museum Association of New York. "It seems that when some institutions get into financial trouble, they look to their collections as a way to get out."
Deaccessioning to pay the bills is strongly condemned in the museum world. The Association of Art Museum Directors, a national group, strictly prohibits the sale of artworks to cover anything but the acquisition of art. The group imposed sanctions on the National Academy for its sale, advising other institutions not to collaborate with or make loans to the academy.
While the Board of Regents has had regulations on the sale of artworks in place for some time, including a 2006 amendment on deaccessioning, these rules "weren't specific enough," said Cliff Siegfried, director of the New York State Museum and the State Education Departmentís assistant commissioner for museums.
In response to Fort Ticonderoga's situation, the Board of Regents in December implemented temporary "emergency" regulations to prohibit the use of art-sale proceeds by museums for expenses. The new bill would apply to all museums in the state, including those chartered by the Board of Regents and those chartered by the Legislature.
"We realized that our regulations were a little loose," said James C. Dawson, chairman of the regents' cultural education committee, adding of the new bill, "We're hoping this will pass the Legislature."
Mr. Brodsky has long been involved in art protection issues. At a public hearing in 1993 he questioned the New-York Historical Society's sale of works from its collection to build an endowment.
"We all concluded that there simply had to be a regularization so we didn't lurch into another National Academy or Fort Ticonderoga," Mr. Brodsky said of the new bill. "This is not an imagined problem. It's happening all across the state."
Under the bill, proceeds from a sale could be used only for the acquisition of additional artworks for the museum's collection or "the preservation, protection or care" of works in the collection. And, it says, "No item in a museumís collection may be used as collateral or may be capitalized."
The legislation also delineates criteria under which an artwork could be deaccessioned: if it is inconsistent with the museum's mission as set forth in its mission statement, if it has "failed to retain its identity" because of decay or other deterioration, if it is redundant or inauthentic, or if it is being repatriated or returned to its rightful owner or donor.
"The Legislature therefore finds and declares," the bill says, "that the requirements of this law are necessary to protect the cultural, artistic, historical and scientific heritage of the state, and the public interest, are consistent with long-standing professional standards set forth by the museum community and are consistent with the statutory and constitutional responsibilities of the Legislature and the Board of Regents."