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Twin Thoughts: A Postscript on Salaries and Disruption in the Berkshires

fiduciary-duty

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Given our location near that hotbed of artistic happenings known as the Berkshires, we would be remiss if we failed to comment on the fracas generated by the venerable Berkshire Museum's announcement last week. If you've been on vacation and cut off from news, the Museum disclosed plans to sell 40 paintings to increase endowment and make capital improvements. Needless to say, the news release sent shock waves through the museum world. While the Berkshire Museum isn't alone--the Delaware Museum of Art did something similar in 2015 when it sold four paintings--monetizing the collection isn't usually a board's first or even second choice when it's desperate for money. To date, the Museum received a letter from the American Alliance of Museums and the American Association of Art Museum Directors. Their joint statement included this line, "One of the most fundamental and longstanding principles of the museum field is that a collection is held in the public trust and must not be treated as a disposable financial asset.”  The Museum's director responded in The New York Times by stating, "The fact is, we’re facing an existential threat, and the board chose the interests of this institution over the interests of these national professional organizations.” What puzzles Leadership Matters is the same question we asked about Tom Campbell's exit from the Metropolitan Museum: What was the board thinking? In that instance we were curious whether the board had given Campbell free rein, and then woken up to see the museum tipping toward financial disaster. Did something similar happen in Pittsfield, MA? What is the board thinking? But more importantly the Berkshire Museum is not any nonprofit organization. It's a museum. When current board members agreed to serve--and serve is an operative word-- did no one tell them that a position on the Board, meant they were joining not only the Berkshire Museum, but the larger world of museums through AAM and AAMD? How did they get the idea that ignoring standards of accepted professional and ethical practice wouldn't matter? This situation is eerily reminiscent of Walter Schaub Jr.'s resignation from the Office of Government Ethics. At the time Schaub told National Public Radio, "Even when we're not talking strictly about violations, we're talking about abandoning the norms and ethical traditions of the executive branch that have made our ethics program the gold standard in the world until now." Remind you of anything? How about we replace the words "executive branch" with the "America Alliance of Museums"? In other words, the Museum hasn't done anything illegal, but its board chose to disregard the field's ethical boundaries. While we can hope some gazillionaire raises his hand at Sotheby's, buys a painting or two and donates them to another museum, the Berkshire Museum's pending sale seems like a train that's not going to stop. But before you get too smug that this sorry state of affairs would never happen at your institution, we suggest there's always work to be done. This is probably a teachable moment. When was the last time your board familiarized itself with terms like "fiduciary" and "duty of care"? Did they receive or are they reminded of AAM's Pledge of Excellence or AAMD's Code of Ethics regularly? Is it worth discussing that museums and heritage organizations don't operate in vacuums, but collectively agree to abide by the field's ethical boundaries? That is an obligation, not a choice. Like so many other things--political office, for example--you can't only follow the rules when they suit you. The museum field is the wonderful, complex place it is today because we collectively agree to serve our public. So let's do the best we can to protect the objects, living things, buildings, and sites entrusted to us. Joan Baldwin

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