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From the Chairman

If it’s accurate, is it still a cliché? What I have in mind is that “tough times call for tough measures.” Here we are facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, with all that goes along with it for visual arts organizations—plunging endowments, dwindling donations, shrinking audiences—and most of what I read continues to criticize those organizations for making what, in any other industry, would be considered prudent economic decisions.
I am referring to the seemingly near unanimous outcry when any visual arts organization contemplates or implements the sale of a major work of art to bolster the financial position of the organization. Such outcry seems to be omnipresent regardless of the manner of the original acquisition, the value of the item relative to the balance of the organization’s collection or balance sheet, the frequency of the item’s display, or the ability to periodically borrow the same or a similar work to complement the remainder of the permanent collection.
I admit that I have never been involved in museum management, nor have I been in the room when museum administrators have discussed or adopted standards to deal with this vexing issue. However, as a business person and board member of several arts organizations, it seems to me that the black and white nature of the discussion is overly simple.
Let’s leave aside any actual malfeasance with respect to the financial position of any particular arts organization and focus solely on prudent management and governance. Let’s also leave aside wholesale decisions to sell collections or shutter institutions. In times of economic distress, the effect even on those organizations lucky enough to have endowment funds is severe: donations falter (a recent Bank of America study found that arts-giving as a share of all high net worth giving dropped from 13.2 percent to only 4.2 percent between 2005 and 2007), and public sympathy for the arts wanes, as witnessed by the near-removal of arts funding from the recent $787 billion stimulus bill.
So if a visual arts organization is fortunate enough to own a work that has substantial relative value, absent donor restrictions, why should the decision to sell that work be subject to criticism if the proceeds are to be applied to establishing the long-term financial stability of the organization—or even to help keep the doors open for the public during times of economic stress—rather than used as acquisition funds for new works of art?
I am not suggesting that the stewards of our arts organizations should act recklessly, but I do not see why unrestricted good fortune should handcuff prudent management. If a donor provides a million dollars of funding on an unrestricted basis, why should those dollars be treated differently from a gift of a similarly unrestricted million-dollar work of art—particularly if the sale of that work will insure the organization’s continued operation through the current economic cycle and hopefully for generations to come? I will simply posit that prudence, and not dogma, should be the guiding principle for the stewards of our visual arts organizations. Let me know what you think at <jkanter@sculpture.org>.

—Josh Kanter
Chairman, ISC Board of Directors


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