Michael Kimmelman, NY Times critic, wants a law:
So in the future, I suggest new rules: besides giving local museums a reasonable period of time to match the price of any art sold by any...nonprofit - institution, there should be more open procedures and time for public scrutiny.
First of all, Kimmelman thinks the other guy's foot is pretty much Kimmelman's property. Second, he has not the foggiest notion of what such a draconian law would do to public institutions: He hasn't thought about his proposal long enough to realize the long term effects. He is mad because a favorite painting in the New York Public Library (which, despite having art, is a library, not an art gallery) was recently sold for $35,000,000 to raise money for the library. He is also mad that a private individual bought it.
In 1996...the board at the financially troubled Shelburne Museum in Vermont...sold off classic Impressionist works....The decision was a violation of basic American museum standards, which say that art should be sold only to buy other art - not to dig the museum out of a financial hole...Most if not all of the art ended up in private hands.
Enough. Public institutions must avoid even the appearance of impropriety when selling art.
No, they don't. They should avoid the real thing. Trying to avoid the possibility that some presumptuous ignoramus will be offended is a great way to hobble institutions which already have enuf problems.
I followed the Shelburne Museum sale brouhaha a bit, and the sale was beyond any doubt in my mind the right thing to do. Those paintings never should have gone to Shelburne in the first place. Background: Shelburne was founded by Electra Havermeyer Webb as an open-air museum of rural New England history. She dismantled buildings all over the place and brought them to Shelburne and set them up, filling some with collections of glass, ceramics, scrimshaw, decoys, trade figures, weathervanes & ship's figureheads, while others she furnished as they might have been around the time they were new.
Webb's parents had been the first American collectors of French Impressionists, and most of their collection went to the Metropolitan Museum. After her death, Webb's children decided that they wanted a monument to their mother, and her concept of the museum wasn't good enuf for them. They put up a new building on the grounds which reproduced the interiors of her Park Avenue apartment, including the original paneling. Then they filled it with her own stuff, including some very nice Impressionist paintings. This was completely outside of the museum's stated purpose for existing.
To top things off, visitors couldn't enter the room with the best paintings: you had to stand at a single doorway and look at the entire very large room from there. Paintings were on side walls, some of them 30 feet away, so you could look at a raking angle of perhaps 10 degrees from 30 feet.
Shelburne is a neat museum, but it is way up in the NW corner of Vermont and it doesn't get enuf ticket revenue (last time I was there a ticket good for two days was around $15) to cover expenses, so they need endowment income, and they didn't have much endowment. The trustees believed they couldn't get sufficient gifts to increase the endowment sufficiently, so they decided to sell off the paintings which had no relation to the museum's purpose. Copies would have been just as good on those walls, and selling them would allow ppl who care about Impressionists to see them.
All hell broke loose in the museum world, mostly charging the trustees with acting unethically. So far as I know, not one of the critics acknowledged that the paintings had no purpose at that museum. Not one of the critics stepped forward with an offer of endowment money. Not one of the critics showed any awareness, much less understanding of the concept of opportunity costs. Mr Kimmelman is apparently one of those quick to criticize and slow to pay the bills.
My recollection is that when Sotheby's team of Impressionist experts went up there for the first time, they were amazed at the paintings: they had no idea such things were on public exhibit and had been for decades, because no one could see the things. People who like Impressionists didn't go to Shelburne, ppl who are interested in rural New England do. Anyway, the sale finally went thru, Shelburne's money problems were considerably relieved, paintings were placed where those who love them can see them, and fortunately the Kimmelmans of the world huffed and puffed to no avail.
Still, Mr. Kimmelman wants now to hobble libraries and every other institution which sells off "any art." Every $500 painting? Every broken piece of crockery? Such institutions exist for public benefit, that's why they get tax exemptions. They have boards of trustees who are responsible for there well-being. Let those boards act.
"Any art"? Join the real world, Mr. Kimmelman.