National economic crises create tensions at all levels of society. In the United States, cultural institutions of all sizes have been particularly vulnerable in times of economic recession, particularly those institutions that are part of larger umbrella organizations such as cities, colleges, or universities.
University collections, particularly art collections, are increasingly being viewed as disposable and coveted assets by parent organizations desperate to shore up faltering endowment funds or to fill budget gaps caused by reduced funding from states. Even those university museums that have worked hard to ensure that their parent college or university views them as an essential part of the academic enterprise may face threats when severe economic crises hit.
All university museums may be vulnerable to closure to avoid the costs of maintaining them, but university art museums, with collections that have obvious commercial value in the marketplace, are particularly at risk as university administrators, who have little knowledge of the inner workings of the art market, make difficult decisions that they believe mean life or death for their institutions. Media stories that trumpet the high prices paid for works of art at auction confirm the impression that universities are sitting on underused assets. And, although university art collections are today the most obvious targets, other collections held by universities may not be far behind. Rare books and maps, antique medical instruments, some natural history specimens and many other things may come under scrutiny for their commercial value, as well.
The reality is that much of the art in university collections would sell for a modest amount and the total realized, after all the costs associated with a sale were paid, would likely be much less than anticipated. However, university administrators still face great temptations to use their campus collections to bail out their financially stressed institutions.
In the United States, several university presidents or governing boards have attempted to sell campus art collections. Some have been successful; in other cases, community and alumni outcry prevented this action and in one case, even toppled the university president.
It was in this environment that the Task Force for the Protection of University Collections was formed in 2009. The task force members, who represent associations of museums and university faculty, and foundations, realize that it has no legal standing to prevent the sale of university collections, but they also believe that we can exert pressure in the court of public opinion and take other steps to make it difficult for universities to contemplate selling their collections for endowment or general operating support.
The task force does not intend to prohibit legitimate deaccessioning, including through sale, of collections, but to insist that it be done in accordance with the industry’s highest standards. This means that for art museums in the United States, any proceeds received from the sale of objects from the collection must be used to replenish the collection and such new acquisitions must carry the original donors’ names.
Since the task force’s formation we have successfully worked with the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Accreditation Commission to put in place language that asks university museums to obtain a signed resolution by its university administration that the parent organization “will not consider the museum’s collections as disposable assets.” This statement from the parent organization is now required for a university museum to receive accreditation from AAM.
We have met with regional university accreditation agencies to urge them to include university museums as well as libraries in their accreditation standards for universities. We have been asked to submit language for possible inclusion in some regions, but one stumbling block has been that, while all accreditable universities and colleges have libraries, not all have museums or collections. We continue to work with university accreditation agencies to urge them to include standards for universities that do have museums on campus.
We also monitor potential threats to university collections and quickly inform the professional organizations we represent and the public at large of these threats. We mobilize community members to make public statements of opposition. Members of the task force are available to speak at conferences and professional or public meetings.
The task force meets annually in conjunction with the annual meetings of the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries (AAMG) and AAM and more often when required. We constantly monitor potential threats to university collections in the United States and abroad.
Since its inception, the task force has included representatives from AAMG, AAM and its Accreditation Commission, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), the College Art Association (CAA), the Association of Art Museum Curators (AAMC), and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. The task force recognizes that the risk to university collections is international and 2013 additions to the task force represent the University Museums and Collections (UMAC) committee of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), a part of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The task force operates under the umbrella of AAMG. It is co-chaired by Lyndel King, director and chief curator of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, and David Alan Robertson, director emeritus of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University.
At the August 2013 (ICOM) meeting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, UMAC adopted a resolution in support of the work of the Task Force for the Protection of University Collections. The resolution is in keeping with ICOM’s Code of Ethics for Museums and the Council of Europe’s recommendation on the governance and management of university heritage, as well as the AAMD’s Professional Practices in Art Museums and the AAM’s Code of Ethics for Museums.
Co-Chair, Task Force for the Protection of University Collections
Director and Chief Curator
Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN USA
Christine Anagnos, Executive Director
Association of Art Museum Directors
Judith Pineiro, Executive Director
Association of Art Museum Curators
College Art Association
William Eiland, Director
University of Georgia Museum of Art
Julie Hart, Senior Director, Standards and Excellence Programs
American Alliance of Museums
David Alan Robertson, Immediate Past President
Association of Academic Museums and Galleries
Max Marmor, President
Samuel H. Kress Foundation
Stephanie Wiles, Director, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art
Catherine Giltrap, Curator of College Art Collections
Trinity College, Ireland, UMAC
Steph Scholten, Director of Heritage Collections
University of Amsterdam, Netherlands, UMAC
Jill Hartz, President
Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, co-chair
Lyndel King, Director
Weisman Art Museum
University of Minnesota, co-chair
Resolution on the Protection of Collections
Be it resolved by UMAC, the University Museums And Collections Committee of ICOM (International Council of Museums) on this 14th day of August, 2013, in the ICOM triennial meeting in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, that whereas:
- Collections held by universities internationally are an important part of university and world heritage.
- These collections are irreplaceable and must not be dealt with purely as fungible, financial assets of the university that can be disposed of to meet financial needs.
- These collections must be valued for the role they can play in preserving the history of universities and for the role they can play in current teaching and research at universities, as well as for educating the public.
- If a collection must be disposed of for any reason, it must be done in keeping with the professional standards of museums and the disciplines concerned. Any disposal of collection by a university must be done in consultation with, and on the advisement of, those experts who are responsible for the collection.
- It is the responsibility of a university to provide appropriate protection for collections that they hold in trust for their students and faculty and the world community, now and in the future.
- a) This resolution is in support of and in accordance with ICOM’s Code of Ethics for Museums, Code of Professional Ethics, adopted unanimously by the 15th General Assembly of ICOM in Buenos Aires (Argentine) on 4 November 1986 and amended by the 20th General Assembly in Barcelona (Spain) on 6 July 2001, retitled Code of Ethics for Museums, and revised by the 21st General Assembly in Seoul (Republic of Korea) on 8 October 2004. This resolution refers to the section on Removing Collections 2.12-2.17b) This resolution is in support of and in accordance with the Council Of Europe Committee Of Ministers, Recommendation Rec (2005)13 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on the governance and management of university heritage (Adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 7 December 2005 at the 950th meeting of the Ministers’ Deputies) particularly sections 7 and 8 that encourage public authorities and higher education institutions to make full use of existing laws and of external and internal regulations for the protection and preservation of the heritage of universities and to adopt adequate provisions to protect their heritage where such do not already exist and section 18 that encourages institutions to provide and maintain suitable physical accommodation for their heritage and to provide balanced and reasonable funding for its protection and enhancement.c) This resolution is in support of and in accordance with the American Alliance of Museums Code of Ethics for Museums, adopted by its Board of Trustees on November 12, 1993 and the Association of Art Museum Directors Professional Practices in Art Museums, 2001.