Museum Sells Pieces of Its Past, Reviving a DebateBy ROBIN POGREBIN
Published: December 5, 2010
PHILADELPHIA — A galloping horse weather vane sold for about $20,000, and the cigar store Indians brought in more than $1 million. A Thomas Sully oil painting of Andrew Jackson netted $80,500, and a still life by Raphaelle Peale, part of the family that put portraiture in this city on the map, was auctioned at Christie’s for $842,500.
These were just a few of more than 2,000 items quietly sold by the Philadelphia History Museum over the last several years, all part of an effort to cull its collection of 100,000 artifacts and raise money for a $5.8 million renovation of its 1826 building.
In doing so the museum stepped into the quicksand of murky rules, guidelines and ethical strictures meant to discourage museums everywhere from selling collections to pay bills. It is one of the hottest issues in the museum world today. With budgets shrinking in a bad economy, the pressure to generate revenue is growing along with fears that museums are squandering public trusts meant to preserve the artifacts of the past for future generations.
The National Academy Museum in New York, Fisk University and Brandeis have all recently drawn fire — and even sanctions — for selling or planning to sell artworks, and none of them sold as many works as the museum here.
In general art and objects are supposed to be sold only to finance acquisitions, though different museums are governed by different standards. Art museums, regulated by a formal code of the Association of Art Museum Directors, may not sell work for any other reason.
As a history museum, though, this institution — formally called the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent — is subject to separate, less stringent guidelines put forward by other associations. So museum officials say the installation of new carpet, paint and lighting were all legitimate expenses to be paid from the proceeds under the guidelines of the American Association of Museums, which say that sales can be used for the “direct care” of a collection. Adding to the confusion, there is a third set of standards maintained by the American Association for State and Local History permitting proceeds to go toward the “preservation” of a collection, a similarly broad term.
The New York State legislature, confronting this maze of precepts, recently considered passing a law that would make selling collections — the art world term is deaccessioning — to pay operating expenses illegal. It never made it to the Assembly floor because museums opposed it.
Some museum professionals say that having differing guidelines for art and history museums only fosters confusion at a time when finding any means of raising money is especially appealing.
“This rapidly becomes a slippery slope,” said Derick Dreher, the director of the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia. “What museum director wouldn’t be tempted to say that air-conditioning is absolutely crucial for care of collections? Heating, humidification and dehumidification, similarly. But if we go down this road, we end up paying our gas, electric and water bills — classic operations costs — with deaccessioning proceeds.”
But, some argue, museums sometimes have to pare down their collections to remain viable. “Museums really cannot continue to accumulate and accumulate and accumulate ad infinitum,” said Janet C. Marstine, founding director of the Insitute of Musuem Ethics at Seton Hall University and now a lecturer and program director at the University of Leicester. “What does one do with former acquisitions policies that did not make sense, or not having an acquisitions policy, or having so many objects they can’t care for or don’t really fit within their purpose?”
The Philadelphia History Museum, which has been closed for nearly two years for renovations, hopes to finance the completion of the project — about $1.5 million — from the sale of “an artifact” it would not identify. It views its sales as falling within the history museum guidelines.
“We view the entire reconstruction project as preserving and caring for our largest artifact, the building,” said Gregory J. Kleiber, the museum’s treasurer, “and making possible the display and conservation under museum-appropriate conditions of the other pieces of our collection.”
The state and local history association — which serves nearly 4,000 institutions — said that history museums resist easy definition and therefore make rigid regulation difficult. “History artifacts include everything from locomotives to artwork — it’s a very broad type of collection — so it’s really hard to set one ethics statement that covers the kaleidoscopic nature of the history collections,” said Terry Davis, the association’s president. “We intentionally leave our policies — our ethics statement — rather loose. Our belief is a board should take the ethics statement and make thoughtful decisions about what’s best for the care of their collections.”
Ford W. Bell, the president of the American Association of Museums, acknowledged that his group’s policy was “less clear” than the one governing art museums, and that whether or not a history museum’s sales fit within the guidelines “is somewhat subjective.”