Recent News Stories Spark Conversations, Debates Over the Role of Museums
01/16/2018Current events are sparking a larger conversation about the role of museums and their responsibilities to the communities in which they reside and to the public at large.
At the beginning of 2018, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan announced a change to its longtime admission fee policy; instead of an across-the-board “pay as you wish” policy with a $25 suggested admission price, the museum will make the $25 charge mandatory for those who are not New York state residents. (The Met will remain free for New Yorkers, children under 12, and some students, with reduced fees for out-of-state senior citizens.) The change brings the Met in step with the admissions policies of other New York museums, including the Guggenheim, the MoMA, and the Whitney, all of which charge mandatory entrance fees. The new policy also comes in the wake of a now-settled lawsuit in which some museum-goers alleged that the museum’s method of communicating its previous suggested admission price was misleading and caused some visitors to mistakenly believe they had to pay the full amount. The Met’s mandatory fee, which goes into effect in March, has sparked debate, with some commentators, art world insiders, and members of the public expressing dismay at the heightened barrier to entry, even while acknowledging the economic factors cited by the Met’s decisionmakers. Others have floated alternative solutions, ranging from publicity campaigns intended to encourage wealthy visitors to pay more, to steering big-ticket donors toward endowing free admission for all, to selling some of the museum’s collection in order to finance admissions. The conversation raises important questions about the role of museums in our society and culture. Should they be freely available to everyone? Do institutions (especially those who, like the Met, rest on publicly-owned land) have a special responsibility to their local communities, to the exclusion of out-of-towners?
Meanwhile, another high-profile debate about museums is taking place in light of litigation against the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The suit, initiated last fall, seeks to stop the museum’s plan to sell multiple artworks from its collection in order to finance a re-alignment of the museum’s goals in light of ongoing financial struggles. The plaintiffs include the children of famed artist Norman Rockwell; Rockwell, a onetime Berkshires resident, donated to the museum two of his works, which are now among the pieces slated for sale. The state Attorney General has also played a role in backing the plaintiffs. In November, a Massachusetts state appellate court ordered the sale of the Berkshire’s works halted to give the Attorney General’s office more time to investigate the situation; the injunction was recently extended until January 29. The Berkshire case will examine, among other things, whether the proposed sales violate the terms of the statute that established the museum. It also brings attention to the topic of what museums can and should do in the realm of deaccessioning generally. Museum trade association guidelines take a restrictive approach, providing that museums should not deaccession works in order to pay operating expenses or fund renovations; the proceeds obtained from deaccessioned works should only be used to acquire new works for the collection, or in some cases to maintain the existing collection. But critics of this approach say that museums should be free to use sale proceeds to further their missions in other ways as well, for example by investing in facilities, personnel, or programming; some have also pointed out that restrictive deaccessioning policies sometimes result in huge numbers of works languishing in storage, where no one can enjoy them.
Questions about the role of museums—including who can access them and how their holdings should be treated as they evolve—may be of particular relevance and interest to collectors who are considering donating works to an institution. As always, art donors should seek legal advice about prospective donations in light of pragmatic concerns such as logistics (for example, who will be responsible for storage, transport, restoration, and insurance of a work that is promised to a museum) and tax consequences (an important conversation given the many upcoming changes to the tax code with implications for art). But as these recent stories about the Met and the Berkshire Museum demonstrate, donors may also want to consider and seek legal advice if they have concerns about these larger questions that may color the impact of their gift, and especially if they have particular wishes, goals, or priorities regarding how a gift of artwork should be handled (stored, displayed, made accessible to the public, or even re-sold) in the future. Sound legal advice and clear contracting can go a long way toward ensuring that both giver and recipient understand what can and should be done with an artwork down the road.
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