I think I'm not getting a job at the Cleveland Museum soon-- but honestly if this is how they operate, I don't want one.
It's likely this will extend into a three part post. Part one is here.
I want to preface my condemnation, by saying that yes, life can be complicated and dealing with the wishes of donors can be very complex. Time marches on, cities grow or fail, endowments fall and causes and issues change, leaving institutions to guess at how to adapt the perpetual wishes of donors to changing times.
However-- for an honest person trying to do the right thing, things are rarely as complicated as they seem. Basic principles do not change and discerning a donor's intentions is not that hard. I'm also very sypathetic to the circumstances and needs that can motivate people to do this- It still aint't right. How can you possibly expect people to make donations to charities if their expressed wishes are not followed?
The Hershey Trust did it right by gradually expanding the reach of it's mission with it's expanding it's assets while sticking to the donors wish to focus on a local community.
With the Cleveland Museum, the asset given was fine art, explicitly granted to the museum's permanent collection.
Logically one can break down the intentions of the donors by priority.
First-- They wanted the works preserved for posterity. I can take a guess they didn't donate them to be destroyed. If for example, the museum had run into problems that left in doubt their ability to protect the work, they had an obligation to get them to someone who could which might mean selling them.
Second---They intended the works to seen by the general public and did not intend the works to be put on the market and end up in a private collection.
Third----They strongly wished if at all possible that they remain in the Cleveland Museum's collection.
One needs to respect the donors as rational, and often very highly successfull human beings who put a lot of thought into their donations. If they had wanted to sell their art and donate cash to the museum-- that's what they would have done. They donated art for the museum's permanent collection. Violating or stretching donor intent should always be a last, not a first resort.
The details of this case, make it substantialy worse than the average and increasing common cases of small hard pressed institutions trying to survive. Culture Grrl has some great posts on this.
"In its court filings, the museum did not argue (as did the Barnes Foundation, Fisk University and the National Academy) that it needed relaxation of ethical guidelines or donor restrictions because its very survival was at stake. It wants to use the money to help fund the second phase of its 200,000-square-foot Rafael Viñoly-designed expansion. The projected cost of the museum's ambitious capital project (which included construction of its East Wing, above, which opened in June) ballooned from $258 million in 2005 to $350 million as of mid-2008---just before the economic bubble burst."
A real Rubicon has been crossed here and something has to be done about it.
Part Three comming soon