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Sanctions Imposed, But So What?

May 27, 2018


The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) announced that they are imposing sanctions on La Salle University Art Museum and the Berkshire Museum for selling works to support operating budgets and/or expansion initiatives. That is all well and good; but really, so what? Both institutions sold the works with full knowledge that this would happen. And are they really worried since these AAMD imposed sanctions do not seem to last very long?

Back in 2008, the National Academy Museum raised $13.5M from the sale of Frederick Church’s Scene on the Magdalene (1854) and Sanford Gifford’s Mount Mansfield, Vermont (1859).  Since the proceeds were being used for operating expenses it prompted the AAMD to impose similar sanctions … but they only lasted for two years.  Guess we know what kind of message that sends.

Turns out, the 2008 infusion of $13.5M was just not enough. By 2016, the National Academy was still in financial trouble and decided to sell two Beaux-Arts buildings on Fifth Ave. (its home since 1942).  The property was listed for $120M … a year later the buildings were still on the market.  Now, the property has been split into three listings: 1083 Fifth Avenue ($29.5M); 3 East 89th Street ($29.5M), and 5-7 East 89th Street ($26M).  Or you can now have all three for only $85M … a real bargain!

In 2014 the Delaware Art Museum decided to auction off William Holman Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil to pay down its debt.  Christie’s estimated the work at $8.4-$13.4M, but it only made $4.25M, a real disappointment.  In turn, they received sanctions from the AAMD which appear to still be in place.  What I did find very interesting was a statement made at the time by the museum’s CEO Mike in an email that leaders were disappointed by the sanctions but did not expect them to have a “significant” impact on exhibitions for the next few years, because the schedule is planned in advance. The sanctions do not apply to exhibitions already in the pipeline. What? Come on!

Later that year the museum sold Calder’s Black Crescent mobile in a private transaction. Then in 2015, the museum sold two additional works: Winslow Homer’s Milking Time and Andrew Wyeth’s Arthur Cleveland.

Museums are organized as public trusts and should not view their collections as piggy-banks. Real laws with real consequences need to be enacted to prevent this from happening in the future.