Earning the Public's Trust | Director's Letter Winter 2018

A number of my columns share an underlying theme—the ways in which museums operate in the public trust. In an age in which public trust in institutions seems perpetually on the decline, it is a happy thing that in many studies, museums have done a better job than other types of institutions at holding on to the trust placed in us. And it is precisely because of the importance I place on earning and deserving this trust that this museum has carried out a number of initiatives during my tenure as its director, from publishing an annual report (available on our website and mailed to sponsors and members) in which we report with transparency on our operations and our fiscal health, to regularly dialoguing with patrons and campus and community partners of all types, to creating a Community Leadership Council that acts as a forum for engaging with leaders from across our region.

It is in the context of our commitment to earning and retaining the public trust that I consider the current controversy emanating from the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Under a plan devised by the museum, seemingly with the encouragement of its board of trustees, forty works of art from the museum’s collections were to be sold at auction. Many of these are works for which the Berkshire Museum is best known, including two works by Norman Rockwell, several important paintings from the Hudson River School, and two works by Alexander Calder—apparently the first two works he ever sold to a museum. What makes this episode so provocative is the fact that the sale was proposed in order to raise money first to gut and renovate the museum building, and second to bolster the museum’s endowment. 

The online art source Hyperallergic has referred to this episode—which is coming to a head as I write—as a “berserk battle.” Why? Simply put, for a museum to regard the works in its care as a semiliquid commodity that can be sold for operating purposes breaks every rule in the museum book. The first job of any collecting museum is to preserve its collection, precisely because we exist to collect, exhibit, preserve, and study the works that are entrusted to us. Accepting works of art offered as gifts establishes a kind of contract with a donor that in my view must be carefully honored, lest future donors question our trustworthiness, and lest the public question our operation exempt from taxation. Works of art acquired by purchase typically are the result of financial benefaction. It is precisely for these reasons that gifts of works of art to nonprofit museums have historically been tax-deductible in this country.

The one exception to this rule—and the one accepted by the community of museums and by our representative organizations, such as the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums—is the possibility of selling a work to generate proceeds that can be used to acquire other works of art. My preceding comments about the essential contracts we enter into with donors still apply, but there are good reasons for the thoughtful application of this exception. A museum’s mission might evolve over time so that certain artworks are no longer relevant to its purpose. Works of higher quality might be acquired so that the work now surpassed is unlikely to be exhibited or otherwise used. In the case of works of art that exist in multiple (principally prints, photographs, or sculptures), works might become redundant. And in several of these instances, a museum might reasonably feel that such works should be sold—ideally to other museums—with the proceeds used to acquire other more germane or important works.

Even this exception could, of course, be subject to abuse. We might rightly be suspicious of institutions selling off much-loved treasures because they might (temporarily) be out of fashion or because a board or director has taken on the idea of institutional reinvention. So even this use of deaccessioning, which we at Princeton have ourselves carried out occasionally, must not be taken lightly, but rather be subject to exceptional rigor and, hopefully, to a set of carefully wielded checks and balances.

As in many such cases that achieve notoriety (think for instance of the case of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in early 2009), the attorney general who argued for a restraining order to prevent the Berkshire Museum sale suggested that the sale is not only profoundly unethical but possibly illegal. The sale of some of the works in question would evidently break the museum’s 1871 charter, while the sale of the two works by Norman Rockwell would break the artist’s express interests established when he donated them.

Whatever the outcome, the process to date has represented an extraordinary breach of faith with the community served by the Berkshire Museum, seemingly just at a time when the struggling institution needs its community the most. From my vantage point, all museums need to remember their communities and the trust those communities—of users and donors—place in us, in good times and bad, and without which we cannot and probably should not operate.

James Christen Steward
Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director