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What you need to know for 03/23/2017

Editorial: Let museums sell art if they must

Editorial: Let museums sell art if they must

Sometimes, even in the art world, business conditions warrant distress sales

There’s no telling what the state Senate will do if and when it returns to action, but one thing it should not do is pass a bill that would interfere with art museums’ right to sell works in their collections to generate operating capital.

“Deaccessioning” has been an unfortunate development in the art world since the global recession worsened about a year ago — notably, the National Academy Museum sold off a pair of Hudson River School paintings to cover operating costs, while Brandeis University announced it was going to sell its collection in the face of declining enrollment, etc. Indeed, cultural institutions should only turn to it as a last resort. But when it comes to selling a painting or similar asset to keep the doors open or pay the curator’s salary, they — like any other business — should have the right.

A bill by Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, cosponsored in the state Senate by Jose Serrano, would limit it. And while the lawmakers’ intentions — preserving the public’s access to art — are laudable, their methods may prove to be counterproductive. A museum that couldn’t raise cash to deal with a fiscal crisis could go out of business. Such a law might also also discourage museums from taking risks — augmenting their collections during good times.

A New York Times story Tuesday indicated that more than a dozen major museums, including the Metropolitan, Guggenheim and Whitney have written state legislators, imploring them to hold off on the Brodsky-Serrano bill until more cultural institutions that would be affected by it, and the public, have a chance to comment. That’s a good idea, albeit atypical of how the Legislature works.

In the meantime, the state Board of Regents — which already regulates many of the museums — and the Association of Art Museum Directors effectively prohibit the practice. That’s enough. The state Legislature should stay out of the art business.

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