That museums are public trusts is a truism in academic discourse and industry discussion. What various commentators mean when they speak about museums as public trusts, however, is less clear. This Article untangles and analyzes the various meanings of "'public trust" and how these meanings translate into regulatory systems. I propose that two predominant meanings-the public resource and trust law meanings-jointly constitute the definition of a public trust, and that each meaning has a consequent regulatory framework. These definitional and regulatory frameworks coexist without conflict in most contexts. In the context of deaccessioning,however, they collide.
Deaccessioning-the practice of a museum selling art from its collection-is highly contested because it is perceived to be a significant violation of the public trust, in all meanings of the term.Nonetheless, public resource and trust law rules treat deaccessioning quite differently. Public resource rules, exemplified by industry standards and state statutes, strictly prohibit the use of deaccessioning funds for any purposes other than to purchase new art. Trust law rules, on the other hand, work primarily to ensure that the terms of organizational charters, trust instruments, and gift agreements are met. One goal of this Article is to identify and describe the public resource and trust law frameworks. A second goal is to leverage the debate surrounding deaccessioning as a means for discussing how the two frameworks compete and why the trust law framework, enhanced by the addition of corporate governance principles and grounded in "publicity" values, is preferable.
Allison Anna Tait, Publicity Rules for Public Trusts, 33 Cardozo Arts & Ent. L. J. 421 (2015).