02/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The National Academy, Survival and Deaccessioning: An Art World Brouhaha

There's little that excites the art world so much as a deaccessioning brouhaha. The National Academy Museum--one of the loveliest New York cultural institutions that is visited by too few people--has fallen on very hard times. It recently sold two paintings to put some version of real bread on its trompe l'oeil table.

For this high crime and misdemeanor, the NAM was ejected unceremoniously from the Association of Art Museum Directors and censured by the American Association of Museums. Yet how and when, if ever, art should be deaccessioned and what can be done with the proceeds is a subject about which great minds differ. The New York Times has spilled a lot of ink on the subject. An article by the gifted Robin Pogrebin on the ramifications of the sale, "Branded a Pariah, the National Academy Is Struggling to Survive," traced the history of the institution. For those interested in an advanced course on the deaccessioning debate, more followed (the strong essay by Jori Finkel, "Whose Rules Are These, Anyway?"; "Deaccessioning Debate in the New York Times"; and the work of Lee Rosenbaum, CultureGrrl).

Only a little public discussion exists as to the alternatives--though the plucky new director, Carmine Branagan, seems to be peddling hard to think about ways out of the institution's dilemmas. The NAM is a curious place. Its uniqueness is that it is an Academy--the U.S. equivalent of the Royal Academy of the Arts in the UK, with a distinguished list of artists elected since 1825 (people argue whether the Academy idea has current resonance). It has a range of exhibits in a wonderful Fifth Avenue mansion that was not the original home of the Academy, but may be too valuable an asset for the institution to maintain.

I haven't scrutinized the inventory, but as the reservoir of works by artist-members over more than 150 years (members must present the Academy with a work as an aspect of their initiation into the honored ranks), the collection is an extraordinary record of American art (though it would be even more extraordinary if it still had its Eakins "The Wrestlers," now at home in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; for more on this, see Christopher Knight's fine history of the painting's movements, "National Academy deaccession went to LACMA").

This is one of those cases where the governing processes of charitable institutions come up short--especially at the moment where judgment and acumen is at a premium and the implications for the public are great. It's in times like these that the office of the Attorney General should be called upon to help lubricate the search for alternatives.

First, the Attorney General should help figure out how to nudge the decision makers--for example, by appointing an outsider to make a set of feasible recommendations that can be implemented if the collapse of the institution is imminent. The golden moment to sell the glorious Fifth Avenue building might have passed, but all options should be on the table.

What about some radical solutions? For example, in my imagination, a partnership with the Huntington Library in Los Angeles would be worth examining. The gracious Huntington--a veritable machine for producing income in the last decade past--is seeking to expand its role as a museum of American art. Perhaps it would gain the right to manage and exhibit work from the NAM collection. In exchange, it might cover the cost of maintenance and storage or help establish a trust for the work that would involve other great U.S. institutions that seek to show the history of American art.

I'm sure the thought of linking to the Smithsonian American Art Museum has darkly crossed the minds of those engaged with the future of the NAM, though it's hardly clear how much innovation the embattled Smithsonian could carry. Smithsonian links to New York institutions were momentarily the vogue. After all, the Cooper-Hewitt, virtually next door to the NAM, is a reminder of the redemptive possibilities of a New York-Washington engagement.

With the Huntington or Smithsonian or others as partners (unlikely, but still examples), NAM could gain some wise counsel, a greater national role and a new sense of purpose. Even its Academy might be enriched by emphasizing a more national footprint. These are definitely hard times. But that means there should be greater collaboration and flexibility, not rigidity and lines drawn in the sand.