Q&A with Lee Rosenbaum

On Wednesday, April 15, the UIMA will present a public program examining the complicated issue of deaccessioning--or selling--work from a museum's collection. The event, which will begin at 5:30 p.m. at the University Athletic Club, 1360 Melrose Ave., Iowa City, will feature a keynote address from veteran cultural journalist Lee Rosenbaum (right).

A prominent art blogger and a frequent writer for the Wall Street Journal’s “Leisure & Arts” page, Rosenbaum has often been the first to break the news about museum deaccessioning controversies. In advance of the event, Rosenbaum answered a few questions for the UIMA:

UIMA: How did you become interested in museum issues, particularly those surrounding deaccessioning?
Lee Rosenbaum: I began my journalistic career about the time when a tremendous furor arose over the now infamous deaccessions by Thomas Hoving, then director of the Metropolitan Museum, of two major modern masterpieces---van Gogh's The Olive Pickers and Rousseau's Monkeys in the Jungle. The furor stirred up by a series of New York Times articles in 1972 and 1973, which exposed the Met's deaccession deeds and misdeeds, moved then Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz to hold deaccession hearings involving testimony from many New York State museum officials. His office imposed restrictions on disposals by the Met that exist to this day.

This was a case where enterprising art critics and journalists raised the public's awareness of an important issue and had an important impact on policy and practices. It had a strong impact on me, as someone with deep interests in culture and investigative journalism.

UIMA: Why it is important that there be standards to regulate how museums get rid of objects?
LR: In the absence of clearly enunciated, well publicized standards, there will always be some museum officials and trustees who are tempted to monetize artworks in times of financial crisis. It's the easiest but most ethically dicey way to raise quick cash.

UIMA: Why is it important that the public know and understand these issues?
LR: It's important for the public to know and understand these issues because this is our stuff: We've paid for it with the tax deductions that people get for donating it, as well as through museums' tax-exempt status, which they get through properly fulfilling their public purpose. Museums hold their collections in trust for the public, and public and professional opinion has been an important force in discouraging ethically dubious deaccessions.

UIMA: It seems like controversy surrounding deaccessioning has become especially prevalent in the US in the past couple of years. Why do you think that is?
LR: It's obvious that as financial pressures on nonprofits increase, the pressures to monetize collections also increase. And there's a snowball effect when a few institutions sell without suffering significant adverse consequences. This encourages officials and trustees at other institutions to consider art disposals as a solution to their financial problems. I'm thinking specifically of what I call the "Thomas Jefferson University Effect"---the decision by a Philadelphia medical school, which has no art curriculum or art museum, to sell Eakins' The Gross Clinic. I feel that this anomalous case has set a dangerous precedent for institutions that DO have art programs and, therefore, should have a very different set of ethical considerations regarding art disposals.

UIMA: What is your advice to museums -- especially university museums -- with regards to the issue of deaccessioning? How can they prevent the sale of their collections by their parent entities when they are not in agreement? What do you see as the long term solution to this problem?
LR: In the short term, university officials must be made aware of the body of detailed professional guidelines (and the sanctions for violating those), accounting standards (which allow collections to be valued at $1, because they are not liquid assets) and past enforcement interventions by State Attorneys General, all of which are predicated on the fact that these works are the public's patrimony and should not be monetized. Ignore this, and the university risks widespread condemnation by the public, alumni, professional organizations and potential donors (as, in fact, has recently happened at Randolph College in Virginia and Brandeis University in Massachusetts).

In the long term, university museums need to work harder to broaden their constituencies within their own institutions and in their surrounding communities. I like to analogize the art in the university's museum to the books in its library. No one would ever propose of selling the library's reference materials to improve the university's bottom line or pay for a new building. Similarly, the artworks are primary sources of information and knowledge for anyone at the university or in the broader community who is interested in cultural, intellectual and political history (not to mention those who are enrolled in a university's fine arts program). The art isn't a frill. It is central to the university's educational mission. The key to preventing sales from collections is to make sure that the university's stakeholders understand this and that they experience and appreciate the museum's worth firsthand.

Lee Rosenbaum is a frequent contributor to Wall Street Journal's "Leisure & Arts" page and an influential, widely read blogger on artworld issues at CultureGrrl. She has been a frequent cultural commentator on New York Public Radio (WNYC) and has published numerous articles on the New York Times' and Los Angeles Times' Op-Ed pages and in ARTnews and Art in America magazines, among many others. She is author of The Complete Guide to Collecting Art (Knopf) and has lectured on artworld issues at the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University Law School, Seton Hall University, the annual conference of the Museum Association of New York, and a conference sponsored by UNESCO and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture at the New Acropolis Museum.

Her deaccession-related articles include:

For Sale: Our Permanent Collection, New York Times, Nov. 2, 2005
The Lost Museum: Why Is MoMA Selling Off Its Masterpieces? Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2004
A Betrayal of Trust: At the New York Public Library, It's Sell Now, Raise Money Later, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 1, 2005
The Walton Effect: Artworld Is Roiled by Wal-Mart Heiress, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 10, 2007
He's a Museum Leader for Trouble Times (Michael Conforti), Wall Street Journal, Jan. 27, 2009

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