Bill Proposed to Regulate Art Sales by New York State Museums

Museums would be prohibited from deaccessioning all or parts of a collection to cover operating costs under a bill introduced in the New York State legislature this week, the New York Times reports.

Drafted by Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky in collaboration with the New York State Board of Regents and the Museum Association of New York, the bill would prohibit all museums in the state from using proceeds from the sale of artworks for operating expenses; such proceeds could be used only for the acquisition of additional artworks or for the preservation or care of works in the collection. Under the bill, an artwork could be de-accessioned only if it does not fit with the museum's mission, has "failed to retain its identity" because of decay or deterioration, is redundant or inauthentic, or is being repatriated or returned to its rightful owner or donor. Left unresolved is whether museums can include buildings as part of their collections.

The bill was fueled by the December sale of two Hudson River School paintings by the New York City-based National Academy Museum and by Brandeis University's January announcement that it would close its Rose Art Museum and sell the collection because of a drop in value of the school's endowment. Similarly, last summer Fort Ticonderoga, a historic site in upstate New York, considered selling some artifacts to plug a $2.5 million shortfall — a proposal that has been taken off the table.

De-accessioning to pay bills is strongly condemned in the museum world. The Association of Art Museum Directors strictly prohibits the sale of artworks to cover anything but the acquisition of art. The group imposed sanctions on the National Academy after its sale, advising other institutions not to collaborate with or make loans to the institution. The problem in New York is that while the board of regents has had regulations on the sale of artworks in place for some time, the rules "weren't specific enough," said Cliff Siegfried, director of the New York State Museum in Albany and the State Education Department's assistant commissioner for museums.

"These collections were not created as reservoirs of capital to be used for the benefits of the institution," said Brodsky, a Westchester County Democrat. "You keep selling paintings to keep the doors open and eventually you have open doors and no paintings....The goal here is to provide a consistent process in the museum community for dealing with these difficult issues."

Robin Pogrebin. "Bill Seeks to Regulate Museums' Art Sales." New York Times 03/17/2009.