Protecting University Museums

Originally posted on Chicago Art Collection, and part of “Best of Chicago Art Magazine,” May 26, 2011.

Rachel Hewitt

Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University

We’ve previously discussed the role of art museums as educational resources for the public.  What then of university art museums, specifically?  It would be fair to say that these museums and collections have an implied educational role by virtue of their academic affiliation, and are used as resources for art history and fine art departments to complement and enhance the educational experience of students enrolled in the affiliated universities.  University museums and galleries are in a unique position as they have dual roles as resources for both academic study and public education.  Additionally, they are often in put in difficult situations as their collections and employees can be affected directly by their parent universities’ decisions, which may not have the museums’ best interest in mind.

University art museums can be, and are affiliated with, and accredited by the American Association of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors, but can also become members of the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries (formerly the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries) whose president is David Robertson, the Ellen Philips Katz Director, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University.  The AAMG addresses issues specific to university museums and galleries, works with the AAM in making membership more accessible to university institutions, as well as acting as an advocate, particularly in “defending and advancing the careers of museum colleagues whose positions have been unfairly cut or whose collections have been placed on the market in order to fund university and college expenses unrelated to the museum’s holdings.”

In recent years, there’s been much public discussion about the way universities in the United States operate, particularly accusations that they operate more like businesses than institutions of learning, and are more interested in financial gain than quality education.  Assuming this, it wouldn’t come as a surprise that university museum art collections would be collateral damage.  This brings us, yet again, to that tricky museum collections word, “deaccessioning” which we discussed in this article and again in this one.

Deaccessioning in the university museum setting is particularly problematic because decisions are often made by a university’s board of trustees, and not by museum staff.  Additionally, because these decisions are made by the parent organization and not the museum, there is less of an interest in preserving the museum’s accreditation status or integrity in the museum community.

In the wake of Brandeis University’s controversial 2009 decision to close its Rose Museum and sell a collection worth $350 million to bolster university financial losses, AAMG president, David Robertson (among other prominent museum officials) blasted the university, and publicly condemned the decision, noting that the same thing would not happen to the Block Museum.  Robertson, who also protested Fisk University’s attempt to deaccession two O’Keefe works[1], has since worked closely with the AAM on new guidelines that would prevent another situation like the one at Brandeis.

Georgia O'Keeffe's "Radiator Building at Night, NY" 1927

With extensive input from Robertson, the AAM made revisions to an existing policy regarding parent organizations, which in this case would be a college or university, but can also include the government, historical societies, or corporate foundations.  The new wording is meant to educate parent organizations on the importance of the museum and its role as an entity held in the public trust, as well as ensure that the parent organization provide evidence that it “is committed to following AAM and museum field standards, particularly with regard to the museum’s collections, the use of deaccessioning proceeds, and collecting and gift-acceptance policies.”

The AAM’s Accreditation Commission and the The Task Force on University and College Museums, co-chaired by Robertson, asserted in a New Statement of Support Language Designed to Protect College Museums and Their Collections, that “the new, more specific policy language strengthens affected museums’ presence within their organizational governing structure and articulates the essential role these institutions fulfill within their parent organization. Implementation of the new policy also provides an opportunity to educate the parent organization leadership about museum standards and ethics, thereby offering greater protection from threats to the museum’s tangible and intangible assets.”

While these revisions are a marked improvement in a time when universities may be looking for “easy” ways to shore up some cash, there are a few points to take note of. A document put out by the AAMG in March of 2009 notes that only 3-4% of the museum community is AAM accredited.  Additionally, even AAM accredited museums without parent organization conflicts have had issues with deaccession in recent years, and as the AAM itself says, it is not a regulatory body.

[1] This sale was eventually blocked because the sale proposal was found to be in violation of donation stipulations.