From the Field

James Steward on the Public Trust

June 6, 2014

In an eloquent letter to his constituents, Princeton University Art Museum director James Steward tackles the issue of using funds from the sale of art to support a museum’s operations, and how this type of deaccessioning places all museums' missions in danger.

"Collecting, displaying, researching, and preserving great works of art for the benefit of current and future generations are at the core mission of any collecting institution," Steward writes.

"From the dawn of the first public collections and museums in this country—including Princeton’s acquisition of its first work of art in 1755, or the opening of the first American art museum in Philadelphia in 1786—the collecting of works of art has defined our institutions. There are thus good and clear reasons why these collections must be deemed to be held in the public trust. In accepting a gift of art, or a gift of the monies with which to purchase art, we enter into a kind of contract with a donor that sets forth (unless otherwise stipulated) that the relationship between art object and institution is to exist in perpetuity. To break that understanding cavalierly is to risk losing the trust of donors and ultimately the public’s trust in our institutions."


Read the full text of Steward's letter at the Princeton University Art Museum's website


Image of James Steward courtesy of the Princeton University Art Museum.