Two years ago MAN broke the story of the Association of Art Museum Directors’ investigation into the Denver Art Museum’s ethically indefensible deaccessioning of half of this Charles Deas painting to a non-profit organization called The Anschutz Collection. The non-profit is controlled by collector, donor and local billionaire Philip Anschutz.
Last February, AAMD concluded its investigation by shrugging at the deal. AAMD effectively admitted that Denver gamed the system, but AAMD did not push for the museum to ‘undo’ the transaction. Then-Denver director Lewis Sharp was not sanctioned. AAMD released a statement ‘strongly discouraging’ museums from engaging in so-called partial deaccessions, but it changed none of its ‘rules’ for members, leaving the door open for more profession-embarrassing behavior. (‘Tis the AAMD modus operandi: Provide a veneer of occasional indignation when it’s unavoidable, but do what it takes to allow members to behave badly.)
Here’s the latest reason why Denver’s deal was a bad one and why AAMD should have done more: Denver is now engaged in a commercial relationship with a company controlled by Anschutz. His AEG Exhibitions is the company circulating the for-profit ‘King Tut’ show. The exhibition opens at DAM on June 29. (Tickets for the show went on sale last Friday.) The improper partial deaccessioning raises questions about the independence of the museum’s programming, about whether Denver was in a position to say ‘no’ to a scholarship-free, expensive King Tut show given that it has a unique and unusual relationship with the man who controls the company that is circulating the for-profit exhibition. The confluence of the exhibition and the Deas also raises questions about how a museum negotiates an exhibition contract with a profit-focused donor with whom it shares a collection object. This is the kind of unfortunate situation that would have been avoided if Denver hadn’t engaged in a questionable collection-related transaction in the first place — or if AAMD had done something about it.
This is the second recent example of an art museum engaging in a business deal with a donor-collectors while also having a relationship with them that includes art. Earlier this year the Corcoran agreed to provide a fluff show to Don and Mera Rubell. Months later, they sold a significant Washington property to a group that includes the Rubells.
Related: At its next meeting AAMD will announce the election of a new president. I’ll be interested to see if a new president pushes more aggressively to preserve the integrity and independence of the profession.