When the Field Museum sold more than 30 works of 19th-century Western art for millions of dollars in 2004, it eased controversy by announcing plans to spend the proceeds on new artifacts and by holding on to four of the best paintings from the collection.
But within seven years, the museum had sold off the four remaining works by famed artist George Catlin and used some of the money to create a fund whose earnings would go toward certain staff salaries.
Since then, records show, some scientists and executives at the Field have considered selling other treasures.
In late 2010, on the recommendation of a financial consulting firm, the museum went through its collections to determine whether any items could be sold. And this year, a committee of scientists and executives tasked with evaluating the museum's financial situation suggested in a report to the president that the museum's rare book collection could fetch up to $50 million.
Such moves often are a signal that a museum is under financial stress, museum scholars say. Several said using collections sales to fund salaries skirts the edge of preferred museum practice.
The Field reported in December that it is planning significant budget cuts — including slashing millions from scientific research — after a decade of capital projects and expansions left the institution heavily burdened with debt.
Field spokeswoman Nancy O'Shea said in written responses to questions that the museum has acted in accordance with "all applicable ethical principles" concerning its collections and that the sale of the Catlins was not initiated for budgetary reasons. No sales of collection items are pending, she said.
"The museum has made careful decisions as to how to use its assets to best steward its collections overall," O'Shea said.
She said the Field's decision to put collections income toward salaries of staff who care for artifacts and specimens was the result of "careful contemplation" and that it is an appropriate use of collections funds.
"Care and conservation of collection items is an integral part of the maintenance of a natural history collection," O'Shea said in a statement. "And in fact, such care is essential to allow the museum to fulfill its obligations to the public with regard to those collections."
Selling items from collections is not uncommon at U.S. museums as a practical way to weed out less-critical works and free up resources for new purchases. But such sales often lead to controversy because preserving paintings and artifacts is so central to a museum's mission.
"The big idea, the public trust, (is that) you don't have these things to buy them and sell them to make money off them," said Julie Hart, senior director of museum standards and excellence at the American Alliance of Museums.
Sometimes works put up for sale are scooped up by private collectors, putting them off-limits to the public forever. Several Catlin scholars said they had not seen any of the 35 Catlin paintings resurface since the Field sold them.
Sales of items from the collections can also alienate donors; former Field Museum trustee Edward Hirschland said the 2004 auction motivated him to resign from the board and cancel plans to donate his extensive library collection to the Field.
"Museums are about collections," said Martha Morris, assistant director of the museum studies program at George Washington University. "If you continue to sell them off and not replenish them, then you're squandering your critical asset, which is related to the core mission of the organization."
Sale funds care
The Field Museum acquired its Catlin paintings soon after it opened in 1893. According to a statement by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where his work is also displayed, "Catlin was the first major artist to travel beyond the Mississippi to record what he called the 'manners and customs' of American Indians, painting scenes and portraits from life."
When the Field decided to sell most of its Catlins in 2004, the Tribune reported that anthropologists at the museum had determined that the paintings did not fit within the Field's mission and that its mission would be better served by using proceeds from the sale to buy more recent cultural artifacts and more work by non-Western artists.
A Field news release said the money raised at auction would be used to fund new purchases.
"Proceeds from the sale will allow the Museum to establish a special endowment that will allow the Museum to acquire new objects and specimens," then-Field Museum President John McCarter said in the release, a statement reaffirmed in the museum's 2005 audited financial statements.
The auction of 31 Catlin paintings and three works by other artists raised $15.5 million.
The museum had a policy on how to divide money from such sales. Under those rules, nearly $9 million of the auction money would have been deposited in a fund benefiting the anthropology department's collections, of which the Catlins had been a part. Money in that fund could be used for acquisitions or to pay for the "direct care" of collections, which museum policy defined at the time as covering equipment and conservation personnel.
The rest of the money from the sale — nearly $7 million — would have gone into a recently established museumwide collections fund that can benefit any department, including botany, zoology and geology. Museum policy allows the fund to be used only for acquiring items for the Field's collections — not for equipment or staff. (In the case of specimens that are discovered, not bought, the money typically would pay for collections expeditions.)
In 2010, the museum board approved a resolution moving about $7 million in principal and interest out of the collections fund and into a newly created "direct care" fund whose income can be used to pay for equipment and personnel. Only $1 million was left in the dedicated collections fund, according to the resolution document.
In the same resolution, trustees expanded the pool of staff whose positions qualify as "direct care." Income from the anthropology collections fund and the direct care fund can now help pay not only for conservation personnel but also for "registrars, collection management personnel, specimen preparation personnel, collections digitization personnel (and) materials testing personnel."
Zoology curator Mark Westneat said Catlin money helped fund a 2008 collections trip to Palau but that he doesn't have much access to those resources anymore "because they are being used for the valid and important role of paying people."
A spokesman for John Canning, who chaired the Field Museum board in 2010, referred questions to the Field's press office.
O'Shea, the museum spokeswoman, said McCarter never "publicly announced that expenditures of Catlin funds would be limited to acquisitions." The 2004 news release was not a "formal commitment to the public," she said, and when McCarter said the money would fund new acquisitions he did not mean to "exclude any other appropriate use."
She pointed out that McCarter said in a separate 2004 publication — the Sotheby's auction booklet — that the money could go to care for collections. McCarter did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
O'Shea said the museum had spent a "considerable" amount on acquisitions since 2004 but declined to provide a figure.
She also defended using collections funds to help pay certain salaries, saying that caring for and conserving artifacts and specimens is one of the museum's key obligations.
Still, the practice is not common at major museums, experts said. At the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, long considered a peer of the Field, money from the museum's rare sales of collections may be used only to pay for new collection items, not for supplies or salaries, a spokesman said.
Marie Malaro, former director of the museum studies program at George Washington University and the author of a textbook on legal practices for museums, said any institutions using income from collections sales to pay salaries should have a good explanation.
"If you do this, prepare to go under the spotlight and explain how you've been running your organization for the last number of years," said Malaro, who has also served on the Smithsonian's in-house legal team. "There is always a suspicion when this happens that the board and staff have drifted from focusing on their core responsibilities."
Professor Stephen K. Urice, who teaches museum law at the University of Miami School of Law, said using proceeds to pay collections care staff can be an acceptable short-term approach to address financial concerns if used with other budget-balancing measures. But he disagreed with the Field's broad definition of "direct care."
A conservator qualifies, Urice said, but including a registrar — a person who tracks collections data and handles loans — in that category would be "a stretch."
Stanley Katz, director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton University, also said he was troubled by the use of collections income for salaries.
"This certainly runs very close to the line of what generally accepted museum ethics are," he said. "It's the kind of thing that you would only do if you were in deep, deep trouble."
Rare books eyed
As it put the Catlin proceeds to wider use, the Field also was preparing to sell its remaining four paintings by the artist.
In 2004 the museum chose to hold those artworks back from the auction because of "their specific historical significance and connection to the earliest years of the Field Museum," McCarter wrote in the auction booklet. But four years later the Field's board voted to sell them, bringing in $3.8 million when the sale was completed in 2011.
At the time, the museum was feeling increasing financial pressure. Between 2000 and 2008 the Field had spent about $230 million on capital projects, but a fundraising campaign had fallen short of expectations and no more than $150 million had been raised for capital projects during those eight years.
O'Shea said new reasons for selling the Catlins emerged since 2004, including "a lack of expressed public interest in the paintings in the intervening years; concerns about the long-term care of the paintings (and the high cost of conservation); and the lack of suitable display opportunities within the Museum."
Meanwhile, in 2010 a financial consulting firm suggested that the Field go through its collections and make sure they were "fully cataloged … with items of potential sale value clearly identified." The museum followed the recommendation but nothing was sold as a result, O'Shea said.
Earlier this year, an exigency committee of scientists and executives that was convened to assess the Field's financial situation suggested that the museum consider selling some or all of its rare book collection. A report by the committee determined that the books are "not necessary for the research of the museum" and estimated their worth at $30 million to $50 million.
O'Shea said neither move was initiated by museum administrators, pointing out that the 2010 inventory was done "following the recommendations made by McKinsey & Company (the financial consulting firm) and at the request of the board." She pointed out that the majority of voting members of the exigency committee were scientists, not executives, and that the recommendation to consider selling rare books was nonbinding.
Westneat, the zoology curator, served on the exigency committee and said selling works that are less critical to the museum's mission would be worth it to save research at the Field.
Still, he said, "it makes me uncomfortable to think about selling collections like that to help the bottom line."
The Field's rare book collection contains what some experts believe to be the best set in existence of John James Audubon's "Birds of America," hand-colored engravings the pioneering nature artist painted in the early 19th century.
The collection documents the discovery, identification and study of plant and animal species going back hundreds of years, said Leslie Overstreet, curator of Natural-History Rare Books at the Smithsonian Libraries, who has done research in the collection.
"The museum scientists' work, based on the historical literature, has very practical applications — forestry management, fisheries, developing new medical drugs, studying endangered species," Overstreet said. "If (the books) go to private individuals, researchers can't get at them."
Sometimes, she noted, print dealers will buy rare books and sell off pages as separate prints. "The text is lost and the information in them is lost and they end up being pretty pictures on somebody's wall," Overstreet said.
Should the Field choose to sell off more collection items, it's possible that another museum could buy them and keep them accessible to scholars, researchers and members of the public. Field Museum policy enables museum officials to favor buyers most likely to provide the best care for the artifacts and to use them for education, research or exhibition — "if substantially equivalent offers are received."
But when the Catlin paintings were on the auction block in 2004, a $10.7 million bid from the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Neb., did not measure up to a better offer from an anonymous telephone bidder. Several Catlin scholars told the Tribune they have seen no sign of the paintings since the sale.
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