December 14, 2008

NY museums may be able to sell works to pay debt


ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The state board that oversees New York museums may consider allowing them to sell artwork, artifacts and other works to pay back debt, a change of policy some museum backers say would threaten quality collections.

The state Board of Regents started working on an "emergency amendment" to the rules governing how museums can manage collections because it appeared that Fort Ticonderoga, a historic site and museum in northern New York, was on the verge of bankruptcy, said James Dawson, chairman of the board's Cultural Education Committee.

Fort Ticonderoga last summer said it wanted to sell some of its works — including a painting by Thomas Cole thought to be worth millions — to help erase about $2.5 million in debt. But state rules currently require museums to use the money from such sales only to buy other works or enhance their collections.

The emergency amendment would allow museums to sell off works to pay down debt if they can show that they have no other way to raise the money and would otherwise go bankrupt. The museums also would only be allowed to sell the works to another museum or historical society in New York.

The Board was to have taken up the amendment at a meeting Monday but Dawson — who represents northern New York on the Board of Regents — said he withdrew the proposal Thursday, partly because Fort Ticonderoga was able to raise enough money to stay out of bankruptcy court.

"Since the emergency has been removed, we don't need to do it," he said.

He couldn't say how much Fort Ticonderoga had raised, and museum officials declined to comment to The Associated Press.

Dawson said the Board of Regents will revisit the issue early next year as part of a broader review of museum rules and regulations.

"In the fiscal climate the country and the state are in right now, we can see additional cultural institutions coming into fiscal crisis," he said. "We need to have a procedure for dealing with that."

The idea of museums cashing in on their collections in challenging budget times is generally frowned upon in the art world. Dawson said he heard a lot of opposition to the proposed rule change, including from some other Board of Regents members.

The state proposal also became known just weeks after the National Academy in Manhattan, which is not subject to the Board of Regents' rules, sold two Hudson River School paintings to shore up its finances.

That move drew a strong rebuke from the Association of Art Museum Directors, which asked its members to stop working with the academy.

"Collections should not be used to support operating budgets," said Michael Conforti, the association's president and director of the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Mass.

Museums nationwide have faced cash crunches in the faltering economy as the value of their endowments slides and governments and philanthropists have fewer dollars to contribute.

But few appear to have been squeezed to the point where they're considering selling off their collections, said Dewey Blanton, a spokesman for the American Association of Museums. Doing so would be considered a breach of ethics, he said.

Anne Ackerson, director of the Museum Association of New York, said her group was among those opposing the idea of allowing museums to sell their collections to pay debts. While it might be a short-term fix for some museums' financial problems, it might dissuade others from seeking other solutions when money gets tight, she said.

"We don't think this is the right thing to do in the long term," she said.

The Board of Regents rules governing the sale of museum holdings were established in the early 1990s when the New York Historical Society faced financial problems.

Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Queens Democrat who chaired an investigative committee at the time, said he was happy to hear the Board of Regents had withdrawn the emergency amendment proposal but remained concerned that they might still try to tweak other parts of the rules that define what qualifies as part of a museum's collection.

Brodsky said he urged the Regents to hold off on making any changes until after a more thorough review involving museums, the Legislature and others with an interest.