The Irish Museums Association (IMA) welcomes the decision of the Alfred Beit Foundation to defer the planned sale of paintings from the Beit Collection until October 2015, allowing for discussions on the future of the collection to take place in a public forum.
The controversy around this proposed sale highlights the importance of provisions in the International Council of Museum's (ICOM) Codes of Ethics regarding the deaccessioning of works from museums. Failure to abide by this Code of Ethics can harm the reputation of the institution involved and result in a breach of public trust and potential loss of future endowments and public grants.
While most international Codes of Ethics allow for disposal from Collections for financial gain, this should be done in the most exceptional circumstances and with the utmost transparency. It is recommended that any income generated be re-invested for the benefit of the collection and not be retained for purposes such as a general endowment. It is extremely important that any disposal of works be done in an open, public forum, after appropriate consultation has taken place with stakeholders and the wider community. Maintaining public trust and confidence should be a priority at all times.
The IMA has asked the Trustees of the Alfred Beit Foundation (ABF) both publicly and privately to confirm that they have followed the internationally accepted guidelines set down by ICOM in disposing of material from their collection. While this collection is managed as a private foundation, it was placed in trust for the benefit of the Irish public who have a vested interest in its future. The lack of transparency and consultation throughout the process is worrying and has been damaging for the sector.
The IMA is deeply sympathetic to the severe financial difficulties faced by the Alfred Beit Foundation. There is no doubt that the decision to sell off such prized items from their collection was not taken lightly. No organisation holding collections in trust for the public should have to choose between preserving their collection or facing financial ruin. This situation highlights the need for provisions to be put in place to support organisations like the Alfred Beit Foundation so that historic homes which operate for the benefit of the public, like Russborough House, can be passed on to future generations with their collections intact.
The IMA joins colleagues from An Taisce, the Irish Georgian Society, the School of Art History at UCD, and many other organisations across Ireland to express our willingness to work in collaboration with the Alfred Beit Foundation to seek alternatives to this sale. We would also support any assistance the government can provide to the Alfred Beit Foundation to ensure the survival of Russborough. With the assistance and goodwill of all these organisations we would hope that a measured, long-term solution to this regretful situation can be found.
The IMA, as previously expressed on announcement of this sale and following the sale of artefacts from the Alfred Beit Foundation's collection in 2013, would not wish a precedent to be set for collections of national importance to be treated as realisable assets. Whether they are public bodies or private foundations, institutions which hold material in trust, have a duty of good custodianship. Every effort should be made for the items to remain in the public realm.
The recent controversy also highlights the importance of the initiatives like the Heritage Council's Museums Standards Programme for Ireland. One of its key standards is that museums and collection-based institutions should have a formally adopted deaccessioning policy which clearly indicates the circumstances in which material can be deaccesioned and the procedures which must be followed if items are disposed of. The IMA would advocate that this is a minimum standard that should be adopted by all museums and collection-based institutions in Ireland and, in the interests of transparency, that such policies should also be publicly accessible. With increasing numbers of museums and collection-based institutions operating across the island of Ireland this is an issue that needs to be addressed as a priority, as is the need to put in place provision for state support to safeguard public access to nationally important collections.
This Statement has been issued on behalf of the Board of Directors of the Irish Museums Association by Brian Crowley, IMA Chair and Gina O'Kelly, IMA Director of Operations.