Friday, October 09, 2009
In an article in the Wall Street Journal, we learn that the Cleveland Museum of Art is at the center of a controversy that has many members of the art community concerned. The museum is currently undergoing a $350-million, eight-year expansion that would significantly improve its ability to fulfill its mission. Unfortunately, having a large portion of its funding tied to endowments has left the museum short on funds during this rough economic period. This blow comes at the beginning of the second phase of construction, and stopping the project does not seem to be an option for the museum.
Left with a limited range of choices, the museum has come up with a solution that has many people unsettled. The museum has been granted permission to draw up to $75 million over 10 years from the interest paid out on two endowment funds and two outside, restricted trusts for acquisitions. In 1955, the museum found itself in a similar predicament when it ran out of funds for an expansion. A judge allowed the museum to use money from restricted acquisitions endowments to pay for the rest of its project. Now three of the same funds will be accessed to support the current building endeavor, and the fourth fund the museum plans to use was established by Leonard Hanna, who supported the 1955 decision to use those funds for that expansion.
Museums are not allowed to sell works of art unless they use the proceeds to purchase other works of art. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) set and attempts to enforce this rule; however, there is nothing yet in AAMD’s best practices that prevents a museum from taking funds from restricted acquisitions trusts for non-acquisitions purposes. These trusts were created by donors for the purpose of acquiring art. The museum’s argument is based on the idea that the donors would want, above all, the museum to continue to fulfill its mission, and the only way it can do this is by completing the current construction project. The opposition to this plan worries that a decision in favor of tapping into these funds for non-acquisitions purposes would set a bad precedent.
In a time when many people are feeling the effects of a tighter financial situation and the arts seem to some an expendable endeavor, it makes sense for the museum to try and tap into the resources it has, but should it be allowed to make assumptions about the intent of its donors? This is a heavy question. There are many people who believe that if donors wished for the museum to use the money in the way they saw best fit it would have been stated in their trusts.
Those of us at the Georgia Museum of Art are interested in what you think about this issue and to hear any opinions about Cleveland’s decisions.
Photograph: Courtesy of Rafael Vinoly Architects © Brad Feinknopf, 2009
The Cleveland Museum of Art’s new East Wing, off the 1916 building.