Magnate's Picasso buy heightens museum ethics debate

What's new at museums? An ethics debate.

S.I. Newhouse, Jr. resigned from the board of New York's Museum of Modern Art because of a conflict-of-interest issue resulting from his purchase of a 1913 Pablo Picasso painting that the museum was selling.

Museum officials were unaware of Newhouse's plan to buy the painting. When they learned of it and questioned him, he resigned. The Museum of Modern Art, as with many other museums in the United States, prohibits staff and board members from purchasing objects deaccessioned by the institution.

The Paris-based International Council of Museums, for example, includes as part of its "Code of Professional Ethics" that, "The collecting policy or regulations of the museum should include provisions to ensure that no person involved in the policy or management of the museum, such as a trustee or other member of a governing body, or a member of the museum staff, may compete with the museum for objects or may take advantage of privileged information received because of his or her position...."

Newhouse, chairman of Advance Publications, which owns Conde Nast Publications (publisher of The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and other magazines), purchased the painting for $10 million.

According to Glenn Lowry, director of the museum, Newhouse was not part of the decision to sell the painting, nor was he involved in establishing a price.

Still, Newhouse's purchase gives the impression of a conflict of interest, of working from insider information, said James Duff, director of the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pa., and chairman of the professional practices committee of the Association of Art Museum Directors.

This has been a season of ethical quandaries for the museum world, occasioned in part by the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensation," an exhibit of works by young British artists. The Brooklyn Museum aggressively recruited donors and sponsors who stood to gain financially from the event, including dealers who represented the artists; Charles Saatchi, the owner of the artwork; and even musician David Bowie whose Internet company was given the exclusive right to display "Sensation" online after he pledged $75,000.

In exchange for its contribution, Christie's auction house was given special access to the museum to entertain clients.

The Washington-based American Association of Museums created a special task force to look into issues raised by "Sensation," as well as concerns about purchases of deaccessioned items.

Going a step further, a number of museums, such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has published lists of the works in their collections whose history of ownership during World War II is unclear and might possibly have been stolen by the Nazis.

In addition, the association suggests that museums make exchanges with artists rather than simply selling the work they own.

According to Charles Dambach, president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based Museum Trustee Association, "Art museums are put in a dilemma here. The people on their boards are usually collectors.... Do you penalize [them] for serving on the board? It's hard to balance things."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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