In early June, when Michael Conforti became president of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), no one could have anticipated the challenges that he and his colleagues would face just a few months into his two-year term.

As luck would have it, this country’s leading professional organization for art museums now finds itself in the hands of one of its most seasoned and respected members — director for 14 years of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass., and, before that, curator of sculpture and decorative arts at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (a position he assumed more than 30 years ago). Mr. Conforti, 63, has long been widely esteemed as one of the field’s leading thinkers and advocates.

Now hardly a day goes by without announcements by museums from Los Angeles to Detroit to New York of substantial reductions in programs, exhibitions, capital projects and staffing — collateral damage from a global financial drubbing that walloped museum donors, retail sales and, most critically, endowments.

Even the enormously wealthy J. Paul Getty Museum last month announced a job freeze and other cost-cutting measures. Mr. Conforti’s own well-off institution is slowing down its expansion. More dire was the situation at two poorly endowed museums — the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and the National Academy Museum in New York — which revealed they were on the verge of going bust. Both gained last-minute reprieves. But the academy’s sacrifice of two paintings to raise cash was condemned last month by AAMD’s board as a serious violation of museum ethics. The sales broke a cardinal rule — that proceeds from selling art may be used only for buying other art.

So why does Mr. Conforti seem so upbeat?

Fresh from meeting with the architects for the Clark’s expansion, he argued during a long conversation at New York’s Harvard Club that this financially perilous period is “a great time for art museums.” They are, he said, “bellwethers for people at moments like this. We saw this happen after 9/11. If we are doing our jobs well, we’re the places that people can turn to in times of instability. The reality is that the Metropolitan Museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Phoenix Art Museum are not going away.”

But the National Academy and MOCA did come perilously close to “going away,” due to financial circumstances specific to them that predated the general economic collapse.

The academy clawed its way back from the edge by selling two Hudson River School paintings — its most important Frederic Church and its only Sanford Gifford — to raise about $13.5 million for operations. By the time its desperation-driven plan to sell came to light on Dec. 5 through a report on my CultureGrrl blog, the paintings were already gone — withdrawn from the public domain by an unidentified private foundation.

In making this risky move, the museum forfeited not only AAMD membership but also art loans from and collaborations with institutions that obey the strong recommendation of the association’s board. “These objects are there for the collective cultural patrimony of the people who live in this country. They are not fungible assets,” Mr. Conforti declared to me.


Lee Rosenbaum
Wall Street Journal