Not Waiting for the Next Brandeis

June 21, 2010

The announcement last year that Brandeis University planned to sell its noted, 6,000-piece collection of modern art stunned and angered museum officials around the world. The university said it needed money for its other operations. But to the art world, the plan represented a rejection of the idea that nonprofit institutions do not sell art from their museums except as a means to expand their collections.

Facing a huge uproar and threatened lawsuits, Brandeis put the plan on hold, and the art has not been auctioned off. But the museum world -- noting not only the Brandeis controversy but others in which colleges and universities have sold or been encouraged to sell works of art -- is trying to block such actions.

The American Association of Museums has announced new accreditation standards for museums that would require them to obtain evidence (in the form of board statements or other documentation) to show the commitment of parent organizations to museums seeking accreditation. For college and university museums seeking accreditation, that would mean a closer evaluation not only of the functioning of the museums but of the commitment level of the colleges and universities of which they are a part.

The changes were drafted by a committee on college and university museums, created in the wake of the Brandeis proposal, and would require college boards to pass a resolution specifically stating "the parent organization’s commitment that it will not consider the museum's collections as disposable assets."

Further, museums will need to provide evidence of "the parent organization’s commitment to use its resources to support the museum and its mission, and to protect the museum’s tangible and intangible assets held in the public trust," as well as its commitment "to following AAM and museum field standards, particularly with regard to the museum’s collections, the use of deaccessioning proceeds, and collecting and gift-acceptance policies."

David Alan Robertson, director of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern and president of the recently renamed Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, was co-chair of the committee that wrote the new standards, and he said that museum directors wanted to be sure that college and university leaders are aware of and committed to a philosophy appropriate to having a museum. While the museum association lacks any legal authority to order institutions to abide by its rules, it does have influence, Robertson said, as many institutions expect their museums to be accredited.

He stressed, however, that the college art museum leaders are also working to educate regional accreditors -- whose recognition is needed for colleges to be eligible for federal aid -- about the ethics of preserving art. "Like any political movement, we need to come at this from a variety of fronts," he said.

The academic museum group recently presented proposals to the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (proposals that haven't yet been acted on) that might provide additional protections for art museums, libraries and other key intellectual resources of campuses.

One of the changes, for example would make the following addition (new words in italics): "The organization and its units use scholarship and research, as well as the libraries and other collections of cultural and intellectual resources that sustain scholarship and research, to stimulate organizational and educational improvements." And another proposed change would add these words in italics: "The organization’s resources -- physical, financial, and human, including its library holdings and other collections -- support effective programs of engagement and service."

Robertson said it was important to focus on these sorts of activities now, so that standards might prevent the need for the association to issue statements condemning some future proposed art sale.

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