WCMA collection to grow despite economy

As other college museums falter in an ailing economic climate, the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) is not just enduring, but remains in “great shape” and is continuing to acquire new works of art for its collection. Museum staff members remain undaunted in the face of the economic crisis and even see benefits to be derived from the difficulties it poses.

In January, Brandeis University announced its plan to close its Rose Art Museum and sell the museum’s 7,180-piece art collection – valued at about $350 million in 2006 – to raise money to bolster the university’s endowment, which shrank from $712 million to $549 million between June and December 2008.

“There’s no reason to think that that’s in our future,” said Lisa Corrin, the director of the WCMA. “Williams College has always enthusiastically supported the place of art in a well-rounded liberal arts education.” Indeed, John Stomberg, art lecturer and WCMA’s deputy director and chief curator, described the museum as “a complex, strong, vital organism taking its share of the curricular load on campus.”

The last time WCMA deaccessioned art, or sold from its collection, was in the fall of 2002, when it sold several pieces of American decorative art from the 19th century. “The deaccessioning happened after a lengthy process of consultation with the Association of Art Museum Director’s guidelines, the museum’s visiting committee, independent appraisers and respective donors,” Corrin said.

WCMA is accredited by the American Association of Museums and operates under the deaccessioning standards set forth by that association. However, its own deaccessioning policies are even more stringent. WCMA requires that all proceeds from deaccessioned works must be used to acquire new works of art. If appropriate, the proceeds must be used to acquire works of the same period and spirit of the collection from which the deaccessioned work came. In addition, any work to be deaccessioned must also undergo two independent appraisals.

Both Corrin and Stomberg affirmed that while caution will be used in uncertain economic times, WCMA will continue to look for and acquire art. “Our art acquisition budget will likely be less,” Corrin said. “We also have to think about this as an opportunity, since there may be a great work of art for sale that we wouldn’t have been able to afford in a different economic climate.”

WCMA’s acquisitions committee is made up of experts from the museum’s curatorial team, art department faculty members and the associate provost of the College, though Corrin said that she would also like to add faculty representation from other departments, as well as both an undergraduate and graduate student, to the committee in the future.

The committee meets about six to eight times each year, and the museum has, on average, decided to acquire at least one work at each meeting. The committee’s decision to acquire a work of art is guided by factors such as the work’s “artistic excellence, condition, teaching potential and value to teaching across disciplines,” Corrin said.

About 12 percent of the museum’s $2.4 million operating funds are reserved for art acquisition, though that does not necessarily mean the museum uses that much each year. “The funds are used when an appropriate work of art comes up,” Stomberg said. “Buying art isn’t like buying toilet paper – it’s not always there.”

Stomberg also noted that the amount of the budget used for acquisition varies from year to year. “Last year we bought a Rembrandt print. How often does that come up?” he said. “The print was more expensive though, so the museum will probably spend slightly less [on acquisitions] this year. Some years we spend closer to 8 percent [of the budget].”

In addition, the museum acquires a large portion of its works from donors rather than purchases. “We have extremely generous alumni who have for generations given us works of art,” Corrin said. “Our alumni are steadfast in their commitment to the museum. Sometimes they lend us works of art from their own collections so that we can enhance an exhibition.”

The museum’s budget is made up of many sources, including several endowments, direct funds from the College, grants and a trust. “Our endowment funds have been affected like the rest of the College endowment because WCMA is a department of Williams College, and so its endowment is invested along with the rest of the College resources,” Corrin said. “All museums, not just college museums, are going to think long and hard about what is absolutely essential to their mission.”

“It is definitely a time for financial caution,” Stomberg said. “We’ll certainly tailor our budget down – but we are very actively acquiring works of art.”