Columbus Museum of Art navigates fiscal shortfalls and new rules on selling artwork

Joel Oliphint
Nannette Maciejunes, executive director of the Columbus Museum of Art, near the museum's "Morning Sun," by Edward Hopper.

When the Columbus Museum of Art closed its doors in March due to Ohio’s “stay at home” orders, Executive Director Nannette Maciejunes immediately began pursuing emergency financial assistance, which paid off in the form of a forgivable loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), enabling CMA to retain its staff through June.

The museum received a little over $1 million, which, according to Maciejunes, was sorely needed; in the best-case scenario, she expects CMA to be down about $2 million when the museum’s fiscal year ends on June 30.

The museum has also canceled or postponed previously scheduled projects, programs and exhibitions to trim costs. “You cut expenses as deeply as you can, and you hold on to as much cash as you can to get you through the crisis,” Maciejunes said. “We did all of that right away.“

At the same time, museum staff looked for ways to remain in touch with the community during the pandemic, which led to theStay Connected initiative that boasts an online archive of more than 3,500 works from CMA’s collection, virtual gallery tours, Zoom backgrounds and more.

Now, Maciejunes is looking to the future: What does it look like to reopen an art museum during a pandemic? And how do you plan for the fall if you don’t know whether there will be a major resurgence of the virus? Museum directors across the country are discussing those questions with each other, Maciejunes said, and Ohio museums, in particular, are hoping to be aligned as far as when they open and how they open.

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“The great thing for art museums is that, in many ways, it is a low-density experience. You can enjoy works of art in very small groups or all on your own,” said Maciejunes, who mentioned low-hanging-fruit safety measures such as face masks and sanitizer. “Will people need to have their temperature taken? We don't know yet.”

To be sure, the experience will look and feel different. Museum directors have discussed drawing circles on the ground or using other methods to visually represent the idea of staying apart. It’s also possible CMA will reserve certain morning hours for vulnerable populations.

While planning to eventually reopen its doors, Maciejunes stressed that the museum has to remain flexible, including in the way it uses its funds. Recently, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) made headlines for decisions it made to relax some of its guidelines, particularly the ones regarding “deaccessioned works of art,” i.e., pieces a museum sells. 

Some context: A museum is not supposed to sell a work of art to fill a hole in the budget, and if it does, the AAMD can impose a censure or sanctions — not a good look for that museum. “You never want to look at your collection as a monetized asset,” Maciejunes said. “That is not what museums are supposed to do.”

Because of that, deaccessioning art is a purposefully slow and cumbersome process. But it’s also not uncommon as a way to improve and refine a museum’s collection. “You might own a work that someone gave you in 1910 that they were just absolutely sure was a Rembrandt,” Maciejunes said, “and now you find out that actually it was not.“

In other deaccession instances, a work may become damaged and diminish in value. Or a museum may have multiple prints of the same work, and it only needs one in the collection. “There are different reasons to deaccession, but it should always be about the improvement of the collection and the use of the collection. You don't want objects that have no connection to your narrative — the story that your collection tells — that sit in storage for decades and decades,” Maciejunes said.

Last month, the AAMD’s Board of Trustees approved a resolution saying that, for the next two years, it will not impose censure or sanctions on an institution if it uses money from “funds generated by deaccessioned works of art” for general operations, which led some to worry that museums across the country now have a green light to start selling off their collections to private collectors, who would no longer display these masterpieces to the public.

Maciejunes, though, said that’s not quite the case.

“If you say to me, ‘You can use the income from deaccessioning a work of art to support operations,’ part of my brain thinks you said, ‘If you sell a work of art, you can use the money you got from that to do that.’ That isn't what they said,” said Maciejunes, who pointed to the exact wording of the resolution, which parses the difference between using “income” and using “principal.” “If I sold something for a million dollars, I put that million dollars into my deaccessioning art fund that lives at my museum. Then, for the next two years — [with interest] that would normally be about 5 percent a year — I could use that income for operations. … I think what people jumped to was, ‘I can sell a work for a million dollars and I could use that million dollars to pay the heating and cooling bill.’ You cannot do that.”

The AAMD is also allowing institutions to use income (not principal) from endowment funds, which usually come with certain restrictions on their usage, to go toward operating expenses, but only if the museum gets permission from the donor. If the donor is deceased, then a family member must agree, and if a family isn’t available, the institution must get permission from the attorney general. 

“We have a couple of endowments that I would like to be allowed to use more expansively during an emergency period,” Maciejunes said. “We will ask those questions about restricted endowments and talk to donors, and if we need to go on to talk to the attorney general, we'll do that. I think those are prudent questions to ask.“

Perhaps the most controversial decision by the AAMD is a temporary relaxation of censures and sanctions on museums that use the proceeds from deaccessioned works of art for “direct care.” But, an institution may only use those funds if it comes up with a precise, publicly accessible definition of “direct care.”

While Maciejunes said most institutions, including the Columbus Museum of Art, will likely come up with a strict definition of “direct care,” she and others worry about a slippery slope. “There's a tight definition now, but what if you go down the road, and then you get a big, inclusive, expansive definition, and people start selling their works to support their museum?” she said. “I think that is a real fear. I think a lot of us are concerned about that.”

That concern, though, is pointed toward the art world at large for Maciejunes, who said CMA will define “direct care” in a way that primarily serves the public. “The best lens to think of ‘direct care’ is something that you would need to do to support the care of that object that makes it possible for it to be shared with the public,” she said. “Cannibalizing your collection to save your institution, if you step back and take the long view, that doesn't make any sense. It never has. That's why there are such strong professional standards around it.”

“If you're a collecting institution, as the Columbus Museum of Art is, we hold those works of art in trust for the public,” she continued. “I don't have a Monet at my house. The Monets I have live at the Columbus Museum of Art, and I, as a member of the community, expect the Columbus Museum of Art to take care of them for me, for my children, my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren.”