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Exhibition ethics – Response to ‘Sensation’ controversy

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The American Association of Museums has adopted new ethical guidelines on how museums should finance and supervise displays of art borrowed from private collections, the New York Times reported August 3.

The guidelines are divided into two sections. The first, on “Borrowing Objects,” covers possible conflicts of interest. A museum should make sure there is a clear connection between a particular art object and the museum’s mission, according to the guidelines.

The museum should also investigate potential conflicts of interest – for example, if the lender is also a board member – and should have rules in place to address those conflicts. Finally, the guidelines prohibit museums from accepting a commission if the borrowed art is sold.

The second section, on “Lender Involvement,” addresses institutional control over exhibitions. The guidelines say that museums may consult with lenders, but should retain full authority over the content and presentation of exhibits. If the lender is also supporting the exhibition financially, the museum has a duty to make that public.

The guidelines are voluntary for now, but are likely to be adopted by the association’s accreditation commission. If so, museums who failed to comply with the guidelines could be denied accreditation.

The rules were created in response to last year’s controversy over the financing of the “Sensation” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The show displayed works from the private collection of London advertising magnate Charles Saatchi, who also partially funded the show. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani accused the museum of colluding with Saatchi to increase the value of Saatchi’s collection.

For full story, go to the New York Times.

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