Collection Ethics and Management: The Cornerstone of the Institution

Two critical areas make up the life of any museum: It’s collection of items, and it’s development practices. In this piece let’s discuss the impact of collection ethics and the management of a collection.

Collections range in size from a few dozen objects at the smallest of local history/art museums, to several million items within the archives of the Smithsonian Institute. Regardless of collection size, or the size of the institution the collection is representing, a governance of ethics and laws discuss how a collection can be used, and not used, and how it may be expanded or lessened. When these protocols are not followed it is a detriment to the entire field.

The word “ethics” often conjures visions of greed and salacious activity within corporate America. Anyone remember the Enron scandal? However, ethics play a role in the museum field with regard to its acquisition, maintenance, and use of items within a collection. Several governing bodies have a “code of ethics” that includes bylaws for collection management and use. These are a few with their codes linked for reference:

American Alliance of Museums: Code of ethics

International Council of Museums: Code of Ethics for Museums

Association of Art Museum Directors: Code of Ethics

The third reference is particularly significant to this piece. A well-respected art museum in Virginia found itself embroiled in multiple ethical issues with the AAMD several years ago after committing a “violation of one of the most fundamental professional principles of the art museum field.” The museum in question is the Maier Museum, owned and operated by Randolph College (formerly Randolph Macon Women’s College), in Lynchburg, VA. The issues at the Maier have become a case study on how collections at museums are utilized and ultimately who controls a collection when the museum is owned and operated by a private non-profit entity.

Four pieces by respective artists George Bellows (Men at the Docks), Rufino Tamayo (Trovador), Edward Hicks (A Peaceable Kingdom), and Ernest Hennings (Through the Arroyo) were put up for sale by the Randolph Board of Trustees to enhance the endowment and develop key strategic partnerships for Randol College students. The four paintings put up for sale are seen below.

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The issue at hand is whether the Maier Museum was itself the purveyor, overseer, and “owner” of these pieces, or if Randolph College considered the Maier and its works part of the College’s assets to do with as they saw fit. In this case, the board of trustees decided that the Maier was an entity of the College and thus its collections were able to be used for the “fiduciary benefit” of the college.

At the time of the initial idea to sell the art pieces, Randolph College was facing an institutional identity crisis (having admitted men for the first time) and faced an increasing financial strain. Selling the art put Randolph in hot water with several museums and cultural ethics boards. The general rule is that “You don’t sell art to fix the boiler. The ethics are very clear on that,”.

Deasseccioning an item from any collection is a risky endeavor if not done for the furthering of the mission of the institution that is deaccessioning it. Randolph was not selling the art pieces to buy or attain more pieces of art to change the makeup of its collection (and even that skirts the ethics line), it was done to keep the college from going bankrupt.

Since the initial removal, the “Men at the Docks” has sold for $25.5 million in a private auction, “Trovador” for $7.2 million at private auction. “A Peaceable Kingdom” and “Through the Arroyo” both sold at private auction, final numbers on these two have not been disclosed. “Through the Arroyo” was returned to Randolph on loan by the anonymous buyer of the piece and the proceeds from the sale of “A Peaceable Kingdom” are being used to support an endowment for a “Director of Education” position at the Maier Museum.

How a museum cares for and utilizes its collection is what defines the quality of any institution. It is important for the public to hold the museum accountable for its actions. Randolph was censured for its practices and was later barred from having anything to do with any museum that was a member of the Association of Art Museum Directors, an organization they had no formal affiliation with.

We must all do our part to ensure that the history of our society, told through objects, and art, are taken care of in the highest respect.

We are all curators! Our museums are our collections!


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