Letter to the editor

Robert Schweitzer, Curator from The Maslow Collection - Marywood University

A recent article in The Citizens’ Voice announced that Wilkes University is planning a major new initiative to advance the presence of the arts in our community, an action that is to be applauded with great enthusiasm. To create a new high profile gallery in a location that is more broadly open to the public is an exciting venture, and one that will greatly enhance the activities by others in the community, especially the new space and programs of the WVAL, to bring the arts into greater focus, and reach a larger public.

Having said this I must take serious issue with the manner by which Wilkes has chosen to fund this project. The university has decided to raise much of the needed funds for the project by selling off the most significant works in their existing art collection. Although the deaccessioning of one or more works from a museum or university art collection occurs from time to time, it must only be done in a manner consistent with professionally accepted procedures established by the AAM (American Alliance of Museums), the CAA (College Art Association), or the AAMD (Association of Art Museum Directors). Quoting from the deaccessioning guidelines of the AAMD:

“Deaccessioning and disposal from the collection must result from clear museum policies that are in keeping with the AAMD’s Professional Practices. Deaccessioning and disposal from the art museum’s collection must never be for the purpose of providing financial support or benefit for other goals of the university or college or its foundation. In no event should the funds received from disposal of a deaccessioned work be used for operations or capital expenditures.” [AAMD Policy on Deaccessioning, part IX. “University and College Museums”, section B.]

It should be clear as to why these professional standards are in place, and why Wilkes must not proceed with the sale of these works in order to fund this new project, no matter how significant it may be.

We must understand that university art collections are not merely assets waiting to be leveraged into other projects. Consider the implications if this were to become the standard for other universities. If another university is planning a similar worthwhile project they may as well circumvent their traditional fundraising procedures and just tap into their art collection to find the best works to sell in order to make up any possible shortfall, relinquishing the responsibility of the board to raise the necessary funds. And of course very few donors would ever be interested in donating to an institution if they knew the works they wished to donate, most often given in memory or recognition of someone they love, with the intent and belief that these works would remain in the public sector for study and appreciation, would be treated in such a manner. The consequences are obviously deeply troubling and far-reaching for any institution that wishes to build a meaningful and significant art collection, and for the donors who these institutions depend upon to help them enhance and enlarge their collections.

In addition, the president of Wilkes University states that this new project will enable them to draw larger national and international exhibits to the gallery, but Wilkes must understand that by going against accepted museum guidelines and standards most, if not all, major institutions would not be willing to participate in such a future loan. And it is also difficult to see how selling off the core works in your collection reflects ‘an enduring commitment to art.’

I can only hope that taking all this into account Wilkes will reconsider their plans and take responsible measures to ensure that they proceed in a professionally accepted manner to make this truly worthwhile project a reality.

On a personal note, I teach curatorial studies and I really don’t want to use another regional institution as an example for the students of what you should never do in your professional career.