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Ethical Considerations for Museum Closures

Category: Museum Magazine

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.

As the recession continues to roil global markets, erasing jobs and halving endowments, many museums and historic sites are doing their best simply to survive another day. No one can say precisely when the long climb back to a healthier economy might begin, or whether it already has, but even the most optimistic in the museum world believe the field will be littered with shuttered museums when it’s over.

Some—from Florida’s Gulf Coast Museum of Art to Washington, D.C.’s Bead Museum to the Minnesota Museum of American Art—have closed in the last year. Others, like the University of Connecticut’s Benton Museum of Art, the East Ely Railroad Depot Museum in Virginia City, Nev., and the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., to name just a few, have been in limbo in recent months their administrators say is driven largely by an economy in tatters.

Brandeis’s announcement in January that the Rose would be closed and its collections sold was met with fury among museum professionals and the general public, with Brandeis students staging fierce protests and editorials in U.S. newspapers blasting the decision. The silver lining: Visitation has skyrocketed, ruefully notes Rose Director Michael Rush, who was slated at press time to leave his job. Where once weekend visitors numbered in the 50-person range, the uproar has increased attendance 20-fold.

“Hearing the support from people everywhere is enormously heartening,” Rush told Museum magazine. (He and most colleagues have been advised that their positions will be terminated this summer effective June 30, although some of the staff may continue at the university in different roles.) “My stomach still churns every day, but that helps a lot.” At press time, the Rose was said to be slated to reopen in July, though what art will be on exhibit there and the precise use of the building was as of yet undetermined.

The questionable ethics of collections-as-liquid-asset notwithstanding, even the most vociferous outcry from laypersons and professionals alike cannot save an institution whose financial outlook has gone from poor to bleak. Or whose audience has dwindled to a trickle. Or—more subtly and often more painfully—whose particular role as keeper of cultural, historic and/or artistic missions no longer meets constituencies’ needs.

An institution struggling to stay solvent may be required to “find a willingness to give up an identity that is no longer viable,” says John Gray, director of the Autry National Center (ANC) in Los Angeles, formed when the Southwest Museum and the Museum of the American West—as well as the Women of the West Museum, which had no physical collections—merged into one entity. “There are not many who are willing to say, ‘We can no longer be what we were.’”

Financial struggles and outmoded missions are not the only reasons museums close. “Being a volunteer-run organization without a patron to help us hire or maintain staff became overwhelming,” says Hilary Whitaker, who served as president of the board of the Bead Museum when it opened in 1997. The museum’s 2008 closure cut close to the bone. “I feel like I have lost a child,” says Whitaker, who along with others on the board is in talks to determine what will become of the museum’s collections, now under the care of the Bead Society of Greater Washington.

For other museums that will not make it through this economic storm, the agonizing questions about the countless painful aspects of closure pile up quickly. Complicated by raw emotion and entangled in legal considerations, among the pressing questions that must be answered as an organization considers closure are: What will become of our collections and the buildings that house them? What becomes of the trust placed in our institutions by the public? And what are our responsibilities—financial, patrimonial, ethical, cultural—to our staff, visitors, donors and communities?

Staff and board members who have struggled through the closure of a museum do not wear the scars from the ordeal lightly. “The decision to close was gut-wrenching, in terms of the ramifications to our community and the embarrassment that we had failed in our stewardship,” says Rick Collette, former chair of the board of trustees at the Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM) in Bellevue, Wash.

Opened in 1975 to promote the crafts and arts of the Pacific Northwest, BAM changed its mission in 2001 to focus more on contemporary art. The new emphasis coincided with the move to a new, larger building across the street from the museum’s original location.

“The reopening and first exhibition were a disappointment to our constituencies,” says Collette, who chaired the board at the time and still serves on it. Visitors “expected art and craft, which had been our legacy. And we were still learning to work with our new space. No one made any mistakes, per se,” he is quick to add, “but the feedback we got was that while visitors were happy about the new building, they weren’t sure how they felt about the art or the way it was displayed.”

Even as the first post-move director left and a second one was hired, attendance at BAM shrank, with revenue failing to keep pace with operating expenses. “When there isn’t excitement about what you are doing, your funding doesn’t develop,” Collette says. “We knew we could not keep this thing running on hope.” In 2003, BAM’s board voted to close the museum.

Whether an institution is closing a single site or merging with and absorbing the collections, staff and purpose of another, the hurdles are significant. “It wasn’t easy, and it still isn’t,” says Gray, who helped guide the merger of three institutions into the ANC in 2003.

The decision to merge meant, among other things, changes to the galleries and programming taking place at the Southwest Museum’s site, which to this day bothers some neighbors adjacent to it. “There are a handful of residents who want [the Southwest Museum] to return to its old condition and programming,” Gray says. Currently the museum is open to the public on weekends, says Joan Cumming, ANC’s senior director of marketing. Like New York’s Cloisters—a separate entity of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—the Southwest Museum’s name and identity will be preserved under the larger umbrella of the ANC, she explains.

Gray describes several of the factors he believes helped make a challenging situation proceed as smoothly as could possibly be expected. For one thing, the affected institutions made a pact that no objects would be deaccessioned for ten years following the merger. “While deaccessioning was not something anyone wanted to do, this [agreement] calmed the fears of some who thought that was the intent,” he says.

In addition, “we did this merger as equals, with the boards truly merging at the same level of authority.” Southwest Museum trustees were not immediately required to make the same financial contribution as trustees of the Museum of the American West had been making; they were offered a grace period of three years to either meet that level of financial support or retire from the board, no questions asked. “It was a gracious, comfortable resolution to that issue,” Gray says.

A third factor was the calculation of a sum—$750,000—that was deemed necessary to take care of the Southwest’s collections and staff for the first six post-merger months. This money, put up largely by Autry trustees, Gray says, gave Southwest staff time to adjust to new responsibilities, look for new jobs, move objects to different locations and draw up preliminary plans for everything from upgraded landscaping to improved handicapped accessibility.

Indeed, board members’ actions as closure emerges as the last, best resort mean the difference between a closure that is merely bittersweet—or one tinged with rancor. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of all the remaining trustees who behaved in the most wonderful, mature way,” says Gray.

For his part, Collette recalls sitting down with each BAM board member, asking each to consider the ramifications of the closure, the reasons why things went awry—and, optimistically, what it would take to reopen BAM at some future point. “I said to them, ‘This is going to be a difficult journey, and I don’t want to ask you to do something you don’t have the stomach for.’” Not all members stayed on, he says, but those who did “absolutely worked their tails off” in the hopes of reopening the museum down the road.

Once BAM was shuttered—its exhibitions deinstalled, artworks returned to their owners, staff hired to secure the building—much of the board’s efforts involved listening to various museum stakeholders. “We must have met with over 800 museum staff, community leaders, public officials and artists in the 90 days” after closure, says Collette. Loud and clear, the board heard from these groups an overwhelming desire to return to BAM’s legacy of craft and design and to present not only artists with ties to the region, but those with a national following. The hiring of a third director—Michael Monroe, who had been the director at the Renwick Gallery, a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum—helped position BAM to reopen in 2005 to broad acclaim.

Not every institution has the wherewithal—financial or other-wise—to take it on the chin from community members, preserve an institution’s physical plant and collections for an indeterminate length of time, and court and hire new leadership—especially with such uncertainty gripping world markets.

“I don’t believe we would merge in this climate,” says ANC’s Gray. “I don’t think the trustees, who were enormously innovative in 2003, would be willing to take on such a risk today.”

Indeed, the effects of the current fiscal crisis are putting even seasoned museum professionals’ optimism to extreme tests. “There is a general feeling in the field that in this economy, there are going to be some historic house museums that are no longer viable,” says Jim Vaughan, vice president of stewardship of historic sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) in Washington, D.C. “The question is, what are our stewardship obligations for them?”

Vaughan says that NTHP is attempting to answer that question with a set of guidelines under development to help shepherd owners and administrators of historic houses through the murky thicket of closure. (The American Association of State and Local History Museums is also drafting its own guidelines.) “I wish we had been doing this a year ago, but of course we didn’t know a year ago” there would be significant demand for this information due to a confluence of factors, economic and otherwise, Vaughan adds.

When a merging partner cannot be found for a historic house, Vaughan says that NTHP may support putting such a house in private hands to continue its mission, with covenants attached to ensure that the owners preserve the house according to predetermined standards and perhaps even open it to the public each year. He points to the Robert E. Lee Boyhood Home in Alexandria, Va., among those historic properties now privately held. “Perhaps one day, a now-private historic house like that one will once more be open to the public,” Vaughan says. “This kind of protection assures it will be there for the next generation.”

The issue of the objects inside a house’s four walls is thornier. “There may be collections that came with the house, or things you gathered that weren’t part of the history of the house but help tell the story of the community where the house was located,” he says. “Should they be sold into private hands or given to a local historical society?”

That’s an ongoing question faced by the staff of Cliveden of the National Trust, a historic house in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood that merged in 2004 with its across-the-street neighbor, Upsala. David Young, executive director of Cliveden, describes the merger as a “creative solution to the question of sustainability.”

“Other museums should consider this,” he says. “Upsala succeeded in fulfilling its mission, line one of which was to preserve the building and make effective use of the collections. It didn’t become a grocery store.” The building is in the process of being converted into what Young describes as a community resource—a place for neighborhood associations, historic preservation groups and others to meet—while the future of the furniture and other household effects is under discussion.

“Some of the [hundreds of] items are directly related to the original provenance of Upsala, and some were collected ad hoc over the years or loaned from other sites,” says Young. To help make sense of which objects fit into Cliveden’s future, “we are teasing out a statement of what precisely it is that Cliveden collects.” Items that do not work with Cliveden’s freshly honed mission may be offered to other Germantown historic sites or be considered for deaccessioning. Preserving the public trust in the face of deaccessioning boils down to maintaining an ultra high level of transparency as you strategically consider each item in your collection.

Take it from one who knows. When Calgary’s Glenbow Museum downsized its collections in the early 1990s, “we got a lot of criticism from museum professionals, though not from the public,” says Robert Janes, who was director of Glenbow at the time and is now editor in chief of the quarterly journal Museum Management and Curatorship. “We identified an amazing amount of high-quality material that would never see the light of day.” Items sold to institutions with whose missions they would better align resulted in funds invested into an endowment, “which spins off income to take care of the collections we are keeping.

“This notion of fiduciary trust—that you have to keep everything forever—is just incredibly unrealistic,” continues Janes, especially considering that few donors include with their gifts funds sufficient to support, maintain and preserve the items in perpetuity.

Keeping collections accessible to the public post-closure is a promise many museums strive to keep through a variety of creative methods. When administrators of the 73-year-old Gulf Coast Museum of Art (GCM) in Largo, Fla., announced in mid-2008 that it would close, the president of St. Petersburg College (SPC), Carl Kuttler, leapt at the chance to acquire GCM’s collections for SPC’s Leepa-Ratner Museum of Art, located at the school’s Tarpon Springs, Fla., campus. “We saw some news stories that said [GCM] was planning to give its art to museums all over Florida,” said Kuttler. “And we thought, what a shame, because this is a lot of great Florida art, with landscapes and seashores.”

SPC made an overture to GCM officials, who agreed to gift the 425-piece collection, whose monetary value is estimated around $750,000, to the college’s foundation. Some of the works will be on view at the Leepa-Ratner; others will be displayed at the Florida International Museum, which shares space with the college in its downtown St. Petersburg location.

Kuttler notes that integrating the arts with education helps foster students’ growth. “I see it as part of the extended curriculum,” he says. “Looking at art, making art—that is how we learn about our civilization.”

There is some good news amid the chaos: At press time, the Benton was still open, its hours curtailed. And the East Ely Railroad Depot Museum—once slated for closure as of July 1—remains open with a single staffer, director Sean Pitts. “The community outrage [at the prospect of closure] was loud enough to be heard at the state capitol in Carson City,” says Pitts. “We battled back, and it was a hard fight, but legislators have put us back in the budget—for now.”

Ultimately, the factors that guide board members and museum staff through the labyrinth of ethical considerations involve a certain mix of flexibility, resilience, impartiality and a willingness to consider different scenarios by which the organization’s mission might continue or change in the decades ahead.

At the ANC, it’s a question of choosing to prioritize funds for conservation for the time being. Gray says that the extensive field notes and other documentation related to the Southwest Museum’s collections are in the process of being organized and “aligned with the objects themselves” to better assist future scholars.

Other intriguing solutions present themselves when a museum considers what new roles it might play in the community—either locally or globally. “A museum might say, ‘We are going to try to make a difference in the world,’” says Janes. He points to the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J., whose campaign to make local teens aware of the health consequences of smoking has spawned a series of educational videoconferences in which students observe surgeries and interact with the medical personnel performing them.

It boils down to “BYOM—bring your open mind,” says Cliveden’s Young. “Consider multiple alternatives. Consider the context in which your museum operates today. Consider what the community needs. And consider not what you would like your museum to be but what it is.”

Amy Rogers Nazarov is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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