Arts policy redux: Selling off artwork, deeply unhelpful national organizations, and a board of artists that can’t govern

Amid the sound and fury accompanying the National Academy Museum’s decision to sell some paintings, and the Association of Art Museum Directors’ decision to shun the Academy therefor, one sensible commentator stands out: Michael O’Hare at the public-policy blog The Reality-Based Community.  (Full disclosure: the Nonprofiteer’s brother is the site’s editor.)  In a series of postings and comments on others’ postings, O’Hare applies straightforward what-are-we-trying-to-do-and-for-whom analysis to the situation, and strips away the pretense that the people involved are operating in a universe so complex and unique that none of the rest of us can hope to comprehend (or, God forbid, critique!) their behavior.

Here are the Nonprofiteer’s additional two cents: almost certainly, the stated ethical principal that museums shouldn’t sell art from their collections except to buy new art for their collections is a specific example of the general principle that nonprofits (and governments, and businesses, for that matter) shouldn’t sell assets to pay for operating expenses.  Ordinarily the sale of assets to pay operating expenses reflects some long-term management/budget problem in the agency, crying out for a long-term solution–and asset sales are, by definition, a short-term (ar at least finite) solution.

It’s probably also true that the prohibition against selling art except to pay for other art is a clumsy swipe in the direction of preventing arts Boards from looting the assets over which they have stewardship.  The old Harding Collection in Chicago comes to mind–before the Art Institute swooped in to save it, the Collection’s trustees had sold off precious swords and suits of armor and God knows what all else so they could pay themselves salaries.  As nonprofit Board members aren’t supposed to get salaries to begin with, perhaps it would have been wiser to emphasize that prohibition rather than creating an ancillary one against selling assets–but certainly the stuff that went into the black market from the collection was lost to the museum world forever, and so certainly curators would be concerned about the specific method of underwriting trustee luxury as well as the bare fact of doing so.

And finally, the press coverage makes clear that proper governance of the Academy Museum is made almost impossible by the interference of the academicians, member artists whose contributions to the museum consist of a single piece of their own art.  (What possible motivation could these people have for regarding sales of any museum art as a disgraceful insult?)  Perhaps the next battle the embattled Executive Director should fight is one for restructuring the institution so that people with personal interests in particular museum decisions are moved out of the way.

Having said all of that: the museum directors’ posture that a museum about to go under is to be deprived of the help in needs because its leadership has accepted an unpleasant necessity involved in saving it is so foolish and unhelpful as to be destructive, and O’Hare’s anatomization of the position’s wrong-headedness is clear, to the point and completely correct.  (Also smart and thoughtful: the analysis offered on the Arts Law Blog.)

Those who advocate “furious fundraising” to solve the problem are certainly correct: again, in general, the role of the Board of Directors is to raise money to assure that the agency has enough money to function, and Boards should be urged and aided to resist the temptation to sell off the agency piecemeal to avoid having to do so.  (Similarly, governors and mayors should be helped to resist the temptation to sell off state buildings and highways and parking meters to avoid having to raise taxes; here in Illinois, we find imprisonment of public executives the best deterrent.)

But it’s also true that agencies, like governments, often own assets they shouldn’t have purchased or no longer need, and that selling those would advance their mission by providing them with resources with which to acquire assets they should have.  And qualified staff and the ability to put on exhibitions (or otherwise pursue the agency’s mission) are “assets” too.

Finally, the Nonprofiteer is compelled to agree with O’Hare that styling a disagreement over management approach as an ethical lapse is the last refuge of the people who can’t explain why things ought to be done their way.  She’s been battling for years with those who argue that anyone willing to raise money for a commission is “unethical,” a position that merely assures that agencies most in need of fundraising assistance can get it only from people willing to put themselves beyond the professional pale.  Maybe our new year’s resolution should be to reserve the term “unethical” for things that actually shock the conscience, like torture and race discrimination, instead of for things on which reasonable people can disagree.


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One Response to “Arts policy redux: Selling off artwork, deeply unhelpful national organizations, and a board of artists that can’t govern”

  1. Yana Davis Says:

    For many years, I have thought it hypocritical that “established fundraising ethics,” for lack of a better term, prohibits fundraisers from, in effect, getting commissions on donations they secure.

    No one objects to sales people getting commissions, and like it or not, fundraising is a highly-specialized kind of sales.

    At least among some nonprofits, this notion is beginning to give way, however. Many NPR and PBS stations, particularly those whose licenses are held by stand-alone nonprofits, pay commissions to their “corporate support” representatives. These are the folks who sell “underwriting announcements,” the public broadcasting version of commercials.

    Guess what? Organizations like Minnesota Public Radio and the Public Radio Partnership of Louisville now raise as much or more from corporate underwriting than annual giving, even after paying their corporate support people commissions comparable to commercial sales commissions.

    If you need more money, it seems to be, it’s entirely ethical in the real world to offer incentive for the people who bring it in – 85% percent of what you don’t have now is better than 100% of nothing, after all.

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