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News from Cleveland Museum

Word came on Wednesday (via Donald Rosenberg of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and to me via CultureGrrl) that an Ohio probate court, as expected, gave the Cleveland Museum of Art permission to use money from endowments restricted to art purchases for the ongoing expansion of its facilities.

The decision, which as I wrote some weeks ago, will have audible reverberations in a museum world seeking increasingly creative -- and some would say desperate -- funding measures. The question at hand is whether the Cleveland museum's decision honors the "spirit" of its now-deceased donors intentions when they gave money to the museum in the early and mid-20th century.

Without the benefit of a time machine, there's no way of telling whether, as seems perfectly plausable, those donors would be cool with redirecting the interest earned from their contributions toward a purpose other than which they intended it. (One longs for the appearance of Lee Pace's character on "Pushing Daisies," who could awaken the dead for just long enough to resolve pressing questions.)

There is a reasonable argument to be made about the futility of acquiring new artworks when there is no place to store or exhibit them. It goes a little like this: If the net benefit of the CMA's decision to reinterpret its donors' intentions is a stronger museum that makes its bounty available to more people and thus better honors the artists' and curators' intentions, then so much the better.

A less convincing argmuent is that the museum is only using the interest from the contributions, not the principal. But one doubts that these donors, who gave their money as early as 1920 and as late as 1951, were dumb enough to think that it wouldn't be multiplied through the magic of investment. Even less convincing, though surely a thought that has passed through the mind of one or two supporters: Who cares? The rich bozos are dead!

On the other hand, there is the matter of the tricky precedent.

Museums are in dire straights, not just in the Rust Belt, but in places as economically boisterous as Los Angeles. Every chink in the armor of the legal and ethical standards that enforce things like donors' inentions, the separation of corporate and curatorial interests, the selling of work thought to be held in the public trust, and so on, leads toward a new and frightening place in which the supremacy of the art itself is threatened or diluted.

I can see both sides of this one. But I sure wish the CMA had come up with a different solution.

For more, keep an eye on CultureGrrl, Real Clear Arts and Modern Art Notes, as well as the Plain Dealer's arts section.

--Colin Dabkowski

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