The Association of Art Museum (AAMD) believes firmly that the sale of works from a museum’s collections to fund non-collection-related expenses is a violation of the public trust—and is not a path to financial sustainability. Yet this is exactly the misguided approach being pursued by the leadership of the Berkshire Museum.
The recent decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to approve the Berkshire Museum’s planned art sales addresses outstanding legal questions. It does not resolve the violations of ethical and professional standards that will occur when the Museum’s plans are implemented. Those are separate and distinct issues that are the purview of organizations such as ours, and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM).
AAMD’s professional practice rules prohibit a museum from using the proceeds from sales of art to fund anything other than new acquisitions. We believe this is a critical issue of ethical conduct and best practice, one tied directly to the public trust. When museums violate the trust of their donors and the public, they diminish the opportunity and responsibility to make great works of art available to the public; this hurts the individual institution and affects the museum field as a whole.
We are grateful to the Attorney General’s Office for its diligence in examining the public trust and donor intent issues raised by the Berkshire Museum case in such detail. It was an important process to pursue, even if we are ultimately disappointed with the legal outcome.
Notwithstanding the decision by the Court, AAMD will continue to advocate for the highest ethical and professional practice standards in collections management and deaccessioning. And if the Berkshire Museum proceeds with its current plan for selling deaccessioned works and utilizing the funds for operating and capital purposes, AAMD will have no choice but to consider taking further action in accordance with its policy, which may include censure and/or sanctions.
The Association of Art Museum Directors advances the profession by cultivating leadership capabilities of directors, advocating for the field, and fostering excellence in art museums. An agile, issues-driven organization, AAMD fosters engagement, leadership, and shared learning. Further information about AAMD’s professional practice guidelines and position papers is available at www.aamd.org.