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What happens when a museum becomes history?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 5:28pm

How does a museum decide to dissolve?

That question could ultimately face two cultural institutions: the Detroit Institute of Arts, whose artwork may be sold off because the city has declared bankruptcy, and the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City, which is desperately trying to stay afloat.

It was extremely difficult. For many people in the community, this was their Disneyland.
dana thorpe, the last executive director of the fresno met

Museums don't often go out of business. They cut back, they pare down, but they tend to persevere as cultural anchors of their communities. And neither of these institutions has announced plans to close; both are hoping to weather their current storms.

But both are arguably in jeopardy - the Detroit Institute because a sale would denude its prestigious collection of its most valuable artworks and compromise its integrity, since nonprofit museums, founded in the public trust, are ethically obligated not to sell pieces except to acquire others; the Seaport because it has struggled for years to pay its bills and recently lost its white knight when the Museum of the City of New York said that it could no longer afford to run the museum, which was damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

Should these institutions find themselves forced to close, they could look to the Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art and Science, which shut down in 2010, as an object lesson in the complex, painful process of dissolution.

Like the Detroit Institute and the Seaport Museum, the Fresno Met was a flagship attraction and a local point of pride.

"It was extremely difficult," says Dana Thorpe, the Fresno Met's last executive director. "For many people in the community, this was their Disneyland."

The Fresno Met was one of nearly 30 museums that decided to close in 2009, the last year statistics were compiled, according to the American Alliance of Museums. The alliance no longer tries to calculate the number of closings because many go unreported.

The Fresno Met was created in 1984 in the former home of The Fresno Bee newspaper, a 1922 Renaissance Revival building on the National Register that the Bee's owner donated. Among the largest arts institutions in California's Central Valley, the museum had a few gems in its collection such as native American baskets and a cache of Ansel Adams photographs.

Staff members were let go. The collection had to be sold. The museum considered filing for Chapter 11 protection. But, after calculating the potential costs and delays, it pursued an insolvency proceeding to benefit creditors that is governed by state law rather than federal bankruptcy law. The procedure turns the museum's assets over to an assignee who oversees their disposal.

The liquidation prompted a lawsuit: Adams' family said the photographs were meant to stay in a museum. So the family traded other pieces it had for those in the collection, based on a fair market value price determined by an auction house.

The aftermath wasn't all grim. A science and maths exhibition for children was bought by a children's museum in north-central California. A large collection of boxed puzzles went to a toy museum. The museum's building is rented out as commercial space. And some of the staff members and trustees landed at the Fresno Art Museum, an older institution.

Thorpe says she has received calls for advice from other museum directors whose institutions are in similar straits. "I share the story of the Fresno Met. I never want to see another museum close, even though I know that it continues to happen."

The New York Times



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