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What To Do When Museums Face Tough Times: The American Folk Art Museum

Disaster has been averted for the American Folk Art Museum. The fate of the fifty-year-old institution has looked bleak since last spring. Word of its dire financial situation spread in early September, when the Board of Trustees contemplated closing permanently and ceding its collection to the Brooklyn Museum and the Smithsonian. To the relief of many, this past Thursday, September 22, the museum announced it would continue operations and its collection would remain intact. Infusions from the trustees and the Ford Foundation will keep the museum afloat and new Chairman Laura Parsons and President Edward V. Blanchard were appointed.

Yet the near demise of the American Folk Art Museum leaves a troubling question lingering—what’s a museum to do when it falls on hard times?

In the wake of the recession’s crushing financial pressures, museums have laid-off staff, shortened exhibit schedules, and halted new acquisitions. Museums have even considered a controversial measure—de-accessioning and selling its artworks to cover overhead costs and debt. Although the art world typically condemns this practice, many have increasingly asked whether the unwritten ban should be relaxed to give museums much needed relief when economic hardships hit. There is a fear that making de-accessioning artworks easier will lead to museums selling pieces as a first rather than final, emergency measure. This raises a regulatory question; what legal guidelines should direct the process? In her 2010 op-ed, ‘The Art of the Deal,’ Judith Dobrzynski suggested that an impartial arbitrator should make the decision whether to de-accession an artwork after reviewing a museum’s proposal and their financial records. For now, no comprehensive law exists in New York that governs the practice.

Thankfully, the trustees and staff of the American Folk Art Museum were spared these difficult choices. But until the economy makes a full recovery, the debate will rage on over where to draw lines between preserving the principles of a cultural institution and preserving the institution itself.

Sources: NYTimes ‘With Help From Friends, Folk Art Museum Will Stay Open,’ ‘The Art of the Deal’