Universities struggle with how to view museum collections - The Gonzaga Bulletin: News

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Universities struggle with how to view museum collections

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Posted: Thursday, March 20, 2014 6:00 am

In 1984, far before the Jundt Art Museum had been established, Gonzaga University received a donation of 480 works of art from Dr. Norman and Esther Bolker. The Bolker Collection, predominantly prints, grew to almost 750 works by 2003.  Both of the Bolkers had earned degrees and volunteered at the university. They felt a tie to the community, which led to their generous gift.

The gifts of donors such as the Bolkers slowly grew into a collection, supporting the establishment of an art museum at GU in 2005. 

The museum has experienced growth since 2005. The assessed value of the art and collectibles in the Jundt was $2,985,611 in 2011, as declared in that year’s IRS tax report.  The previous year, that value was $2,971,126, a fluctuation brought about by shifting values of individual pieces in the art market. 

As a nonprofit, the organization could have elected to not value its assets of art in monetary terms.  In doing so, the university included a statement on the tax report explaining that the museum collection served its tax-exempt status by engaging the humanistic, Catholic and Jesuit mission of the university.  Alongside the monetary value, the university underscored that the value of the museum collection lay in its exploration of various religious and philosophical themes with the GU and Spokane community.

In 2009, the board of trustees at Brandeis University in Massachusetts voted to sell the university’s entire collection of art, housed at the school’s Rose Art Museum.  The university, beset by financial struggle, saw the art that it owned as an asset that could be converted to cash.  The decision was quickly opposed by four of the museum’s benefactors, who sued to prevent the sale of the art.  This raised questions of donor intent and breach of tax-exempt status in the event of sale.

Brandeis was not the first corporation to consider turning art assets into financial benefit.  The official transfer of ownership of art through exchange, grant or sale is a process known as de-accessioning.  When met with financial strain, are corporations putting their art in danger of transfer or sale? The involvement and protest of a community to de-accessioning protects the pieces from being used as financial assets. But what else binds these pieces to a legally secure place in the museum?

Getting accredited

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) accreditation process recognizes quality in display and administration, acting as a “stamp of approval” to an array of museums across the nation.  According to the AAM, 41 percent of accredited museums are art museums, and 16 percent are under college or university governance. One primary function of the accreditation is the assurance of the parent organization of the safety of museum items from the threat of de-accession. 

 “In order for a museum to go through an accreditation process, one of the items that the parent organization will have to create is a statement that documents their declaration that they will never use the art collection as financial assets,” Paul Manoguerra, Jundt Museum curator, said.

In GU’s case, that statement from the parent organization would come from the Board of Trustees.

“I would like to work toward accreditation as would the dean of Arts and Sciences,” Manoguerra said.  In his first year at the university,  Manoguerra includes this among his goals as curator at Jundt.  He pointed out the Latin root of the verb curate, which means “to care,” and explains that his role is not just someone who puts cool things on display, but rather someone who cares for the objects under university ownership. 

“If we were to do nothing else at the museum, our goal is to care for the object that is entrusted to us,” Manoguerra said.  

As a nonprofit organization, the museum is under a governing body to ensure the quality of the collection and the museum’s standard of behavior, as expected under the tax-exempt sphere.

Jundt Art Museum acquires art both by means of intentional pursuit and through donors who approach the museum with pieces.  Usually these donors have some connection to the GU community or are residents of the region. A staff committee that includes Manoguerra, Curator of Education Karen Kaiser and Program Coordinator Anita Martello carefully considers each piece presented.  With the goal of improving and expanding the collection that GU owns, the committee only accepts pieces that meet standards of aesthetic value, provide resource for teaching or research, and fit the vision of Jundt enough that they have the plausibility of eventually being put on display. 

Owning art comes with strings attached

Once accepted into the collection, the university signs a deed of ownership that transfers all legal rights to GU.  But with ownership comes responsibility. 

“When an object is gifted to any museum, art or otherwise, it becomes the moral and ethical responsibility of that museum to preserve that object while it’s in its collection in perpetuity,” Manoguerra said.

The capitalization of collections, according to University of California Berkeley professor Michael O’Hare, would ultimately challenge museums by placing strain on their relationship with donors.  An increased de-accession rate would likely cause future donors to place regulations or guidelines upon their gift, thereby lowering its overall value in the eyes of the museum.  O’Hare suggests that “capitalizing collections would also induce a shift of public resources within the arts in a larger sense,” referring to a donor’s resistance to put money into the arts with an organization whose actions did not reflect a prioritization or respect for that department.  

Former Spokane City Art Director Karen Mobley recognizes that disparity can often distort perspective. 

“It’s easy for organizations to look at their assets in times of financial difficulty and include the assets of art or cultural pieces in considering where they could get some cash,” Mobley said. 

The term “organization” doesn’t only apply to a university or museum.  The city of Detroit turned to its art collection in the events surrounding the city bankruptcy last year.  Iconic pieces of art in the Detroit Institute of Art’s collection were originally paid for directly out of the city budget; as a result, the city’s roughly $18 billion debt threatened the collection’s safety.  According to the appraisal by a representative from the auction house Christie’s, the collection was valued at an estimated $452 million to $866 million.  Any further action was halted by a legal battle that defended the Institute of Art’s previous arrangement that forbid the de-accession of art to settle city debts.

All the same, the strong public backlash from the art community proved the ethical challenge that art sale would bring.  In the Spokane community, Mobley believes that resistance would be strong in response to a situation of unethical de-accessioning. 

“The people of Spokane are generally very proud of their arts and culture community,” Mobley said.  

In her time as the city’s art director, the only de-accessioning that occurred was in response to a lack of proper space to display the art.  

Housing an art collection

So where does exhibition come into play?  The competitive art market has driven large art collectors to accumulate larger and more distinguished collections.  According to O’Hare, a typical museum exhibits roughly 10 percent of its collection, and holds the remainder in storage.

At Jundt, objects and pieces that are not currently on display, including the majority of the Bolker Collection, are kept in storage in the basement, and are available for viewing by any student, class or member of the general public.  Upon request, they are brought up to the print viewing room, serving their purpose as valuable educational resources. Still, there is support for spreading these collections to different funds or organizations.

Manoguerra would strongly resist any situation that would cause Jundt to part with a piece of art.  If the hypothetical decision of the Board of Trustees were to utilize an asset of art, the curator rejected any possibility of success. By creating the collection of Jundt Art Museum, he explained that GU “established a moral, ethical and legal responsibility for caring.” The byproduct of this was that the university has made that responsibility its own.  

Ridding itself unethically of any piece, whether donated or purchased, wouldn’t be adhering to the mission of the museum.  If the university ever reached such dire financial debt or approached such bankruptcy that the mission was breached in this sense, Manoguerra would choose to step down from his position as curator.

“I would resign,” Manoguerra said. “I would be breaking my ethics in the art profession to be a part of the comprehensive sale of a piece of art.”

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