"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.