Published: January 15, 2002
By Daniel Grant
AMHERST, MASS. — Something new is at the museum these days – ethics. Throughout the country and throughout the state, museum officials are talking about issues of ethical conduct, which they either have never before discussed or have never discussed in a concerted manner.
The reason for this activity is that both the Washington, D.C.,-based American Association of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors in New York City have been reviewing their ethical codes of conduct in the wake of questionable conduct by the administrators and board members of major museums. The AAM also has threatened sanctions for its member institutions that violate certain recognized standards.
Take for example, Museum of Modern Art board member S.I. Newhouse, Jr,’s purchase in 2000 of a Pablo Picasso painting that the museum was selling.
Newhouse, chairman of Advance Publications, which owns Conde Nast Publications (publisher of The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and other magazines), purchased the painting for $10 million from the dealer through whom the museum was selling the work. According to Glenn Lowry, director of the museum, Newhouse was not part of the decision to sell the 1913 painting, nor was he involved in establishing a price for it. Still, Newhouse’s purchase gives at least the impression of a conflict of interest, of working from insider information, said James Duff, director of the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Penn., and chairman of the professional practices committee of Association of Art Museum Directors. As a result of the conflict-of-interest issue and adverse publicity over the purchase, Newhouse resigned from the board of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Other museum conduct has also made the news, including payments of more than $2.5 million in 2001 at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Tex., to board members. Membership on a museum board is usually a volunteer post, and a recently revamped code of conduct by AAM – to which the Kimbell does not belong – opposes payments to board members and recommends that institutions avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
This has been a difficult few years of ethical quandaries for the museum world, occasioned in no small part by the Brooklyn Museum’s hosting in 1998 of the exhibit of Young British Artists show called Sensation. The museum aggressively recruited donors and sponsors who stood to gain financially from the event, including dealers who represented the artists, Charles Saatchi, the owner of the artwork, and even musician David Bowie, whose Internet company was given the exclusive right to display the Sensation exhibit online after he pledged $75,000. In exchange for its contribution, Christie’s auction house was given special access to the museum to entertain clients.
Additionally, a number of major museums – including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Seattle Art Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego – have acknowledged that, at present or in the recent past, their loan agreements with lenders of artworks shown at these institutions included sales fees of an average of five percent if the piece was sold within a year. This could create a conflict of interest if curators display works on the basis of salability rather than solely on their artistic merits.
More recently, some museum actions have led critics to question how much control over an institution’s programming a wealthy person’s money can buy. For instance, the Smithsonian Institution decided last spring to accept a $38 million gift from businesswoman Catherine Reynolds to establish a hall of fame that would honor notable people of her own choosing, including Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey. Additionally, the Guggenheim Museum opened itself up for criticism last year when it accepted cash gifts from Giorgio Armani for a show of the fashion designers’ work.
Coincidental to the actions of the AAM, the Internal Revenue Service has proposed an extension of its 1993 unrelated business income tax to cover activities between museums and private companies that seem less like charitable donations than commercial enterprises. One specific example cited by the IRS is when a dinner is held at a museum to honor a particular corporation that donates a sizable amount of money. You have to wonder if part of the deal in receiving a donation is putting on a corporate dinner for executives, said Barry Szczesny, assistant director in the government and public affairs department of AAM. If so, it’s not really a gift but a quid pro quo.
Trying to stay a step ahead of lawsuits and embarrassment, a growing number of museums have published lists of the works in their collections whose history of ownership during the Second World War is unclear and might possibly have been stolen by the Nazis. The Association of Art Museum Directors has adopted the policy that museums should inform living artists whenever one of their works in the institution’s collections is to be deaccessioned. In addition, the association suggests that museums look to make exchanges with artists rather than simply selling the work they own.
Behavior may be described as unethical only when it offers the appearance of impropriety. If S.I. Newhouse had early knowledge of the sale of the Picasso by the Museum of Modern Art, perhaps even having a voice in setting the price, he as collector would certainly have an unfair advantage in the process of buying it.
According to Charles Dambach, president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.,-based Museum Trustee Association, art museums are, however, put in a dilemma here. The people on their boards are usually collectors and, in fact, are the people most interested in those very works, the ones who would otherwise be contacted about buying them. Do these people be penalized for serving on the board? It is hard to balance things.
Most of these issues are well known within the museum community and, over the years, many AAM member institutions have simply acknowledged their acceptance of the association’s booklets on museum and trustee ethics. “We’ve always used AAM and AAMD codes,” a spokesman for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, said, a comment made at numerous museums around the country.
Roy Taylor, director of the Chicago Botanic Gardens who chairs AAM’s ethics commission, stated, however, that he wants institutions to “do more than just check off the AAM codes and not really struggle with these issues of ethical conduct. I want museum directors, trustees and staff to rethink the role of ethics in the operation of the institution. They should talk about this and write it up.”
He added that, eventually, museum accreditation would be dependent on museums having a written code of ethics and living up to it. Plans for suspending the membership or accreditation of offending institutions are under consideration. Ethics are not just high-minded affairs but have a practical value as well.
“If a museum is seen as acting unethically and this becomes public knowledge,” he stated, “this can become part of a discussion at the legislative level, which may impede funding sources, for instance, or lead to new law. We prefer to deal with these issues on the association level rather than on the legislative level.”
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