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August 01, 2017


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You recognize that at least the ostensible purpose of deaccessioning norms is to prevent lazy boards from too quickly turning to sales to meet expenses rather doing the hard work of fund-raising. But then you argue that we ought to defer to the judgment of the Berkshire board because they know better than we do what their community wants. That seems like a pretty elastic restraint. So far, this board has run a museum that's at the point of distress: prima facie, that's not evidence the board knows what it's doing. Of course, it's possible the board is making the best of a bad situation, but nothing cited in this post establishes that. You also suggest that if deaccessioning norms were relaxed, museums could sell art they can't exhibit without having to act in desperation and under pressure. Maybe so. But what about the risk that deaccessioning would become routinized, to some extent replacing fund-raising in museum budgets? All in all, despite acknowledging the concern, you've apparently concluded that we don't need to worry much that poorly-run boards will undermine the museums they oversee; it's not clear to me why you've reached that conclusion.

Brian Frye


Thanks for your comment. You're absolutely right, I should say more about Rushton's theory of deaccessioning norms as a "disciplinary device." While I think it is the only coherent theory anyone has offered, I still don't find it convincing on the merits. True, deaccessioning norms prevent unwise sales of artwork, but they also prevent wise and appropriate sales of artwork. I don't take a position on whether the Berkshire Museum's board was wise or unwise, well-run or poorly-run, frankly because I don't know & I don't think it matters at this point. The institution is where it is & it is the board's responsibility to make the best decision it can under the current circumstance. I don't see how punishing the institution by forcing it into bankruptcy at this point will do anything to discipline the Berkshire board or any other. Indeed, enforcing deaccessioning norms arguably would allow the board to put on a show of high-minded "ethics" and let the museum slide into bankruptcy, rather than making the hard and unpopular decision to sell these artworks for the sake for the institution.

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely think we need to worry about nonprofit mismanagement and incompetent boards. But I am not at all convinced that deaccessioning norms are an appropriate or even effective way to accomplish that goal. While you are right that there is a theoretical risk that museum boards would deaccession willy-nilly to cover operating expenses, rather than engage in fundraising, I don't think that's a real risk in practice. There doesn't have to be an absolute prohibition on the sale of artworks in order to properly and convincingly criticize particular sales. After all, deaccessioning norms permit museums to sell artworks in order to buy other artworks, but people still can and do criticize particular decisions on that front.

On the whole, I think nonprofit board management (maybe any board management) typically can't rely on rigid rules and prohibitions (with some exceptions, of course!), because it requires self-reflection and a dynamic conception of board's duty to the organization. As Eric Chaffee ( and others have observed, charitable boards have a special public duty expressed in the somewhat inchoate but nevertheless essential "duty of obedience." I think nonprofit board governance needs to look more that duty and how to create a culture of compliance with it among board members, rather than rigid rules.

Also, I would note that Rushton's theory is only one of the ostensible purposes of deaccessioning norms, and not necessarily the most widely invoked. Indeed, I think the consequentialism implicit in the theory makes it uncomfortable for many supporters of deaccessioning norms, who want an absolute prohibition, whether or not it actually works to discipline board members.


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