OK, I love art. I think it should be conserved, supported, used, observed, etc. So when stories pop up about museums deaccessioning pieces (i.e. selling off pieces in their collections), it's concerning. What if the object disappears into a private collection never to be seen again? What if the buyer sticks it in storage? Loses it? Rips it? Lets dust settle into the centuries-old paint? Obviously, the chances of this happening are slim, but I tend to be one of those worse-case-scenario type people.

 

Museum deaccessioning is a source of conflict that can be all about business or it can get personal. Sometimes I agree with those who oppose deaccessioning...sometimes I think there are bigger problems in the world and maybe selling off pieces won't be all that bad.

 

One institution currently involved in a deaccessioning conflict is Brandeis University in Massachusetts. It wanted to deaccession pieces in its Rose Art Museum. Museum supporters voiced their opposition and then brought a lawsuit to stop the University. There is some more background information in this NY Times article. Last week, the parties reached a settlement and the collection is no longer at risk of being sold. The University's press release states "the agreement notes that the settlement followed 'a series of constructive and collegial conversations about the Rose Art Museum and its future,' between President Lawrence and the plaintiffs."

 

Once again, this is a story involving art, museums, and the use of litigation rather than ADR - which seems to be a recurring theme in these disputes. I obviously support using ADR skills in resolving conflicts, but I can see both the good and the bad in choosing litigation rather than ADR in this dispute. The good aspects of the litigation: it created publicity and authority for those who opposed the deaccessioning of the collection. Neither of those aspects should be short-changed in dispute resolution. People are very opinionated; the right story or press release can create an important "win" in the court of public opinion. The bad part of this litigation: embarrassment and cost. The University wanted to deaccession pieces to alleviate financial issues. Instead, it landed them in a two-year litigation battle, which probably was not very easy on the pocketbook. And I imagine it created some embarrassment for the University as they tried to defend selling off the collection. It made them look like they did not value art and it exposed a relatively desperate financial situation.

 

Would the result have been different had the parties only engaged in ADR techniques? Would the university have listened to the opposers without a court legitimizing their position? Would a settlement have come sooner? Would it have been the same settlement?

 

It's always fun to play the what-if game because, obviously, no one will ever know. It does however give us a precedent in moving forward. If a similar situation arises in the future, parties might not even consider ADR because they see this "win" in litigation. Then again, maybe there are just as strong of precedents set using ADR that are just not publicized. A headline reading "Settlement reached after Two-Hour Mediation Session" probably doesn't sell as well as "Settlement Ends Two-Year Litigation Battle" that can then detail the dramatic series of events and strategic moves that finally culminated into a "win" for one of the parties.

 

As a side note, the Rose Museum is searching for a new director. I feel like a strong set of conflict resolution skills are going to be immeasurably beneficial for the person who steps into that role!

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