Hard economic times mean hard decisions for museums

Smithsonian staff are invited to join the Smithsonian Ethics Advisory Board at the first in a series of provocative and lively discussions about current ethical issues in the museum and scholarly communities on Oct.16.

The first topic is particularly timely: the controversial steps some institutions have taken to address the impact of the recession on their operations. In two highly publicized situations, the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts revealed that it would be selling two paintings in order to meet urgent financial needs, and Brandeis University proposed to close its Rose Art Museum and sell the collection in order to bolster the parent institution’s finances.

"A Peaceable Kingdom" by Edward Hicks was among the paintings sold by the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College in 2007.

"A Peaceable Kingdom" by Edward Hicks was among the paintings sold by the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College in 2007.

Generally speaking, the museum community has been vociferous in its criticism of the two institutions, arguing that they hold collections in the public trust and that it is flatly unethical to sell collections for such purposes. But are there situations in which we have to be prepared to compromise our ethical standards? A New York Times reporter asked, “Why…is it so wrong for a museum to sell art from its collection to raise badly needed funds? And now that many institutions are facing financial hardship, should the ban on selling art to cover operating costs be eased?” In other words, is it unethical to do whatever is necessary to ensure the long term stability of an institution? At moments when the fate of a museum is uncertain, does it really make sense to take the collections out of the discussion?

For a discussion of these issues, join the Smithsonian Ethics Advisory Board at 1:00 p.m. on Friday, October 16 in the Presidential Reception Suite at the American History Museum. The special guest for this discussion will be Karol Lawson, former director of the Maier Museum at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Va. In 2007, Dr. Lawson resigned as the museum’s director when the Randolph College board of trustees decided to sell four paintings from the collection in order to address financial problems. A recent Fellow at at the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies, she is now Director of the Art Collection and Galleries, Sweet Briar College.

If you are interested in joining us for this discussion, please email Jim Gardner, EAB Chair, at gardnerj@si.edu. While registration in advance is not required, we would like to have a preliminary head count for planning purposes.

 Can’t attend in person? Tell us what you think in the comments below. (Remember, you can post under a psuedonym if you’re shy.)

Posted: 12 October 2009
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