Priceless Historical Artifact or Dollar Generator? (from Arts Watch)

Posted by Tim Mikulski, Jan 19, 2011 1 comment

Tim Mikulski

In addition to coping with the trials and tribulations of the reputation that MTV’s Jersey Shore has forced upon the state of New Jersey, I was dismayed to see that members of the arts and culture sector of ‘The Garden State’ are under fire for a decision they appear to have been forced to make.

According to Star-Ledger arts reporter, Peggy McGlone, the New Jersey Historical Society is being criticized for selling one of its ‘prized possessions’ for cash at a time of great need for the organization.

The object was a hand-colored map of the United States as of 1784 which generated almost $2.1 million through a Christie’s auction. According to an expert in cartography, it was the first U.S. map published in America and the first to feature an American flag.

Valuable? Absolutely.

Priceless? Apparently not.

The society managed to hold onto the map for almost 150 years before realizing what the sale of that item could do for their organization.  The group’s board decided that the map, and other items not particularly related to New Jersey history, would be put up for auction at a time when they have to retire their debt in order to keep operating.

So, as the Jersey stereotype says, “Whatsa matta with dat?”

Critics like Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies Director Stanley Katz are deeply offended. Katz told McGlone that the society is ‘violating the moral duty of a public institution to preserve its collection.’

But, if the items no longer fit the mission of the organization and that ‘large scale museum exhibitions’ aren’t part of the mission either, is there anything wrong with trying to generate revenue, retire debt, and keep to a tighter mission?

Is there a moral code for museums and societies to keep their collections even if it means shutting its doors?

Arts Watch is a weekly cultural policy publication of Americans for the Arts that covers news in a variety of categories related to cultural policy including Culture and Communities, Arts Education and the Creative Workforce, Public Investment in Culture and Creativity, and Philanthropy and the Private Sector. The newsletter also features an Arts Watch Spotlight item and Arts Canvas – News from the Field, a short piece written by a different Americans for the Arts staffer each week.

Subscribe to Arts Watch.

1 responses for Priceless Historical Artifact or Dollar Generator? (from Arts Watch)


Stacey says
February 02, 2011 at 9:50 am


"Decommissioning" is a common practice; in a time when funds are needed, it's usual and customary for institutions to sell off items that are no longer needed, or that the benefit of sale is extremely advantageous for the organization. While sad that these things have to occur, it's our new reality.

Tribal Art Hunter | Professional Art Consulting and Buying

  • Please login to post comments.