Director's Letter Summer 2014

The Delaware Art Museum recently announced its intention to sell up to four of its most prized—and valuable—paintings and to use the proceeds to retire its debt, replenish its endowment, and stabilize its financial position. Citing declines in its traditional donor base and the burdens of a building expansion, the museum noted that it turned to this option only after having exhausted all others. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), of which I have been a member for over fifteen years, responded immediately that such a breach of policy—accessioned works of art can be sold only to raise funds with which to acquire other works of art—would likely be grounds for censure, or worse. Such a penalty would inevitably isolate the museum, rending it ineligible to receive loans from or otherwise partner with other AAMD museums, potentially further destabilizing an already embattled institution.

Sadly, the situation in Wilmington is far from unique. The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) has been much in the news in the wake of the city of Detroit’s declaration of bankruptcy, as the city’s creditors seek to liquidate assets—including, potentially, the forced sale of works of art acquired over time with public monies and which remain the property of the city. Many of the region’s greatest philanthropists, as well as the DIA and other entities, have rallied to find creative strategies that might satisfy the city manager and Detroit’s debt holders. But faced with a choice between fulfilling commitments to the city’s pensioners or selling art, the outcome remains unclear.

The situations in Wilmington and Detroit and a host of disparate communities in recent years—from the sale of paintings at Randolph College’s Maier Museum of Art to stabilize the college’s finances to the threatened closure of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University—raise important issues about the monetization of the works of art in their care. Collecting, displaying, researching, and preserving great works of art for the benefit of current and future generations are at the core mission of any collecting institution. From the dawn of the first public collections and museums in this country—including Princeton’s acquisition of its first work of art in 1755, or the opening of the first American art museum in Philadelphia in 1786—the collecting of works of art has defined our institutions.

There are thus good and clear reasons why these collections must be deemed to be held in the public trust. In accepting a gift of art, or a gift of the monies with which to purchase art, we enter into a kind of contract with a donor that sets forth (unless otherwise stipulated) that the relationship between art object and institution is to exist in perpetuity. To break that understanding cavalierly is to risk losing the trust of donors and ultimately the public’s trust in our institutions.

Art museums have always traded in objects that are, after all, commodities. And the value of those commodities has never been greater; new auction records seem to be set monthly. More and more, this troubles art critics, scholars, and others, as the art world seems ever more dominated by the art market. Art museums are inevitably players in this environment, whether wittingly or not. Our choices of which temporary exhibitions to mount and which books to write can clearly impact the market for art. But what, then, is a beleaguered art museum to do? The situation in Delaware reminds us that museum leaders and our boards must shepherd our resources carefully, balancing the need for growth against the funds that will be available to sustain that growth over the long term. How big is too big? What is sustainable? Too many of us have based our financial models on overly optimistic attendance or revenue projections. For a museum already in trouble, the choice between seeing a collection as a kind of semi-liquid asset and survival itself is an ugly one indeed.

At Princeton, we are indebted to the generations of benefactors who have given both the University and the Art Museum a strong financial base and to the visionary leaders who assure that those assets are used wisely. Happily, each year we have many opportunities to continue developing and deepening our collections, thanks in large part to endowments restricted to that purpose. I am often asked if we at Princeton would consider selling (“deaccessioning”) works of art. My deep belief is that we would only do so—with a donor’s blessing, I hope—in order to continue enhancing the quality of our collections and perhaps, occasionally, to transfer to a more appropriate home the rare object that simply has no place in a museum of art. With such an outlook, we are committed to retaining the public confidence in our work and the faith of donors past, present, and future.

James Christen Steward