Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Ethics Smackdown: A Preview of the Future?

I returned from the Alliance annual meeting in Baltimore to find my scanning feeds clogged with a spate of articles about the threat of the state-appointed emergency manager selling collections from the Detroit Institute of Arts to help resolve the city’s $15.6 billion debt. (While the museum is operated by a private nonprofit, the building and the majority of the collections are owned by the city.)

These stories demonstrate the timeliness of one of the Baltimore sessions—the “future of ethics” debate CFM engineered with the Institute for Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University. The origin of this Ethics Smackdown was the Forecast on the Future of Museum Ethics conducted jointly by IME and CFM last year, in which half of our forecasters thought that restrictions on the use of funds resulting from deaccessioning will be loosened in coming decades. 

For the Smackdown, we recruited two eloquent and experienced speakers (John Simmons of Museologica and James Bradburne of the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy) to argue the following proposition*:

Resolved: Whereas, cultural, financial, technological and political trends are changing the world in which museums operate, American museums should revisit the Code of Ethics for Museums and relax the restriction on the use of funds from the sale of deaccessioned collections.

You might take the position that our field’s internal debate about museum ethics is only tangentially relate to the situation in Detroit. Most of the high-profile cases regarding non-compliance with the Code of Ethics involve the actions of non-museum parent organizations, notably colleges or universities (see Randolph College/Maier Museum of Art; University of Iowa/UI Museum of Art; Brandeis University/Rose Art Museum; Fiske University & Crystal Bridges) or, in this case, a city. One can argue (and university administrators often do) that a college, or a city, isn’t a museum and isn’t bound the codes of ethics of the museum field. Certainly it has been pointed out that the Detroit’s emergency manager is primarily responsible to the city’s creditors, not to its cultural heritage.

But the Detroit case has already rebutted the comment of one of our forecasters, who wrote “I can assure you NOBODY CARES about deaccessioning outside of a few academics and museum nuts.” Evidently, this is not so. The Senate Majority Leader of Michigan has introduced a bill that would protect the collection by requiring the DIA to abide by the AAM Code of Ethics. The code specifies that the proceeds from the sale of collections must be used “consistent with the established standards of the museums’ discipline.”  In this case, that would be the standards of the Association of Art Museum Directors, which sets the highest extant bar—proceeds from the sale of deaccessioned material can only be used for the purchase of new collections. 

I will share the arguments made in the Smackdown (as well as the audience vote on the debate) in future posts, but for now I want to encourage you to read up on the situation playing out in Detroit, and think about the following points:

  •         The AAM Code of Ethics has always been a voluntary standard. Outside of the Accreditation Program, enforcement takes the form of pressure from a museum’s peers, press or the public. How do you feel about the prospect of our sector’s voluntary ethical code being enshrined in law? Read through the code and think about the potential consequences of such legislation.
  •          Cities grow and constrict over time. Detroit has shrunk by about 25% over the last decade, and since 1950 it has lost over half its population. Unemployment hovers at 18%, and up to a third of the city’s residential parcels are vacant lots or abandoned homes. The DIA has been economically stabilized, for now, with the support of surrounding counties, which voted to support a millage that will raise about $23 million a year for 10 years for the museum. But the plight of the city dramatizes the broader issue of how any established cultural organization adapts to its environment. Can museums (and their collections) fluctuate with the size of their community, or can they only ever get bigger? If so, how can museums reconcile their size, and costs, to the resources of their environment?
  •          DIA was founded by private wealth, but those founders didn’t provide enough endowment to make it self-sufficient, and the museum soon began to rely on city support. (This was in an era when it was widely accepted that a valid role of government was support for the arts and other cultural goods—a presumption that is currently fading fast.) What is the obligation of a museum founder (or founders) to create a financially self-sufficient institution? And if they fail to do so, are the people who pick up the bill (whether individual donors, a government entity, or a mix of supporters) obligated to abide by the founders’ vision for the size, scope, operations and resulting cost of the organization?


Food for important thought, I hope. Here is some reading to support your ruminations:
*(You can purchase a recording of the Smackdown debate here,)


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