Wednesday, June 26, 2013

One Small Step for Detroit, One Giant Leap for Museum Ethics (Maybe)

Over the past three years, the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) has served as the museum poster child for the debate on the public value of the arts. Last year, the DIA was saved from financial crisis by voters in its three neighboring counties who elected to take on an additional property tax to support the museum. And now, in the past month, Michigan's Attorney General and State Senate have blocked the emergency manager of Detroit from seizing the DIA's collection to pay off the city's debt.

Like last year's tax, this newest development is an important step for the DIA, but it has even greater impact on the field overall. From a non-museum person's perspective, it's a little mysterious.

What's Happening in Detroit

Detroit is in serious trouble financially. The city's emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, is pursuing many options to avoid bankruptcy. One option he put on the table in May is to sell off the DIA's multi-billion dollar collection of art. The DIA and its collection are owned by the city, which makes it a city asset.

Museum supporters and art lovers were up in arms about this proposal, arguing that these "cultural gems" are held in the public trust and should not be shed to pay off creditors. But this argument for the public value of the art is tough to uphold in a time of severe challenges. Detroit's city leaders are looking at a host of tough choices, and it's hard not to be sympathetic to the idea that a bunch of artwork matters less than emergency services, schools, parks, and any number of other city programs and assets that might be slashed to avoid bankruptcy.

For museum wonks, there's a more specific ethical reason that the DIA's collection should not be treated in this way: we don't see museum collections as assets on the balance sheet the same way Kevyn Orr does.

The American museum profession has an ethical standard that says "in no event shall they [funds raised by deaccessioning collections objects] be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections."

In other words, in the museum world, if you sell artwork, you must put the proceeds into a restricted fund to either purchase or preserve other artwork in the collection.

Of course, Kevyn Orr doesn't see it that way--he sees the DIA's artwork as assets, and that's not unreasonable. This DOES come up when museums go bankrupt, at which point collections can be seen as assets by creditors. However, in this case, it is not the DIA that is going bankrupt but the city. If the city (or state) forces the DIA to violate museum ethics to satisfy city debts, it will have grave consequences for the museum and for the museum world.

Think of Artwork like Organs

Here's a weird but apt analogy: organ donation. For large organs like the heart and lungs, there is a national body that governs all organ donation and distribution in the US. All organs are given voluntarily without compensation (usually by dying people), and then the national body manages a list with complicated algorithms to determine who receives which organ.

Imagine if Detroit's largest hospital had an organ donation program, and Kevyn Orr required that the hospital violate medical ethics by selling any large organs received to the highest bidder. This could be a significant income stream for the city and help settle debts. At the same time, it would likely lead to that hospital and its surgeons facing grave consequences in the medical world... just like the DIA will face if the city forces it to violate museum ethics.

I know organs and artwork are different, but the situation is functionally the same: a professional field with a particular code of ethics whose rules may or may not be recognized by government bodies. That's why it is so significant that the Michigan Senate voted to take on the American Alliance of Museum's code of ethics regarding collections - it functionally means that the state is acknowledging and abiding by the professional standard in the museum field.

Complications and Ethical Dilemmas

But let's not start cheering just yet. There is an ironic sidenote to this "victory" for museum ethics. At the same time as this controversy is playing out in the public arena via Detroit, museum professionals are in the midst of debate about whether the ethics of deaccessioning still apply. A recent article in Museum magazine (published by the American Alliance of Museums) talks about the ugly realities of how a collection may be sold if a museum goes bankrupt. The Center for the Future of Museums, which is also run by the American Alliance of Museums, has been hosting a virtual "ethics smackdown" on its blog about the ethics of deaccessioning over the past several weeks. Only a small percentage of museums are formally signed onto the AAM code of ethics. While deaccessioning may be a museum sacred cow, it is not broadly considered our field's most important challenge.

I feel conflicted about this whole question. On the one hand, it drives me nuts that the ethical rules around deaccessioning force museums to protect objects in a way we do not comparably protect other core aspects of our work. There is no requirement that if you cut an educational program that you have to use the funds saved from that to fund other educational experiences. I've worked with museums that have hefty collections and restricted acquisition funds but are closed to the public because all of their dollars and assets are wrapped up in objects and none in public service or access. I can also see the argument that it actually makes museums MORE relevant if our assets are considered fair game in a situation like Detroit's--just as important and just as endangered as other core services.

On the other hand, I feel strongly that as arts are generally misunderstood and marginalized in the public eye (and funding sphere), it's important for us to do whatever we can to help people understand WHY artwork is like organs, and why these objects remaining in the public trust matters. In an offline conversation about Detroit, Margy Waller, who is brilliant at framing the public value of art, put it this way:
The arts are already pretty much ALWAYS seen as a low priority among things of public value. In fact, they're (I want to say we're) often seen as a private matter -- and not a public good at all. 
The arguments about sale of DIA art strike me as forming inside that frame. And if it happens, I worry that it would reinforce what is already the dominant way of view of the arts --- and set back our case-making: that the arts create places where people want to live, work, invest, and visit -- all things Detroit desperately needs right now.
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