Who owns the artwork in the Denver Art Museum? A recent City and County of Denver audit raised questions about the ownership of some works, even as city and museum officials deny the need to act on the audit findings.
Posted Jan. 21, the audit recommended half a dozen behind-the-scenes changes to the way the institution conducts business, including concerns about board diversity. But it also brought to light a rare clash between listener Timothy O’Brien and the museum over access and ownership.
The museum received more than $ 20 million in annual funding from the city in 2018 and 2019, including bond funds for its ongoing North Building renovation and construction project. But her formalized relationship with Denver, which began in 1932, is in jeopardy if she doesn’t clarify ownership of several works she shares with the city, O’Brien concluded after her 10-month audit.
“The Denver Art Museum’s agreement with the city is unclear and lacks documentation on the entity that owns what are and what the responsibilities of each entity are,” O’Brien wrote. “The museum also needs to strengthen the way it manages inventory planning, and its board could better represent the diversity of the communities it serves.”
Museum executives and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s office both disagreed with O’Brien over the need to update their formal partnership. They cited a harmonious relationship and planned future actions that will eventually follow O’Brien’s advice.
“The mayor’s office has accepted six of the report’s seven recommendations, which will go a long way to addressing concerns raised by the audit,” Hancock spokesperson Mike Strott wrote, referring to O’Brien’s recommendations. on how to improve the 35 members. the internal functioning, recruitment and statutes of the board.
“However,” he continued, “we felt it was premature to move directly to the creation of a brand new operating agreement before having implemented these six recommendations and before having had the chance to determine if a new operating agreement is really what is really needed. “
Denver Art Museum officials declined to identify which works of art were the subject of a potential ownership dispute because they believed there was none.
“We don’t really feel like there’s a lack of clarity on this,” said Andrea Fulton, associate director and director of marketing for the Denver Art Museum. “It’s a matter of procedural documentation. We agree, of course, and are more than happy to work with the city to reconcile all of these strengths. But there is not really a lack of understanding between us.
O’Brien’s biggest frustration – and one reminiscent of his contradictory 2017 Denver Zoo audit, in which zoo officials put up months of resistance to O’Brien’s office before surrendering – is that the Museum officials refused to provide him with full access to their ARGUS data, the museum’s collections management system that lists in detail the association’s more than 70,000 paintings, sculptures and other works of art.
O’Brien said museum staff told him that an intern had previously attempted to copy the confidential database, which museum officials see as a valuable extension of their collected works. As a result, he said, museum officials have categorically refused to allow him to make a digital copy of the archives for offsite analysis. O’Brien’s staff were also closely watched at times while collecting data from the archives on site, he said.
“I don’t like being equated with an intern, and I think I have the law on my side. The law is a higher calling than a museum policy, ”said O’Brien. “This is one of the reasons the audit took so long. “
Deputy Director of the Fulton Museum disagreed, saying O’Brien’s team had received full access and training on how to use the database. She said it would never be acceptable to remove a museum work or artifact from the building and that its archives are treated the same “from a security and integrity perspective.”
“The museum is not aware of any inappropriate copying of data by an intern,” Fulton wrote in a follow-up email. “Ultimately, the team had unfiltered access to on-site data.”
O’Brien’s recommendations are advisory, not legally binding, but they are authorized by the City and County of Denver charter. O’Brien has worked his way through the city’s premier cultural nonprofits in recent years, including the aforementioned Denver Zoo, as well as the Denver Botanical Gardens. Its 2018 report on the latter urged the gardens to improve safety practices, among other recommendations.
Fulton said museum executives value the outside perspective on how they work. They were already planning to update many of their practices as they moved into their expanded campus this year, following major renovations and construction in and around 100 W. 14th Ave., Fulton said.
“They are windows to different areas of work, and the operations of an art museum are big, wide and extensive,” she said. “And that’s exactly how we digested this audit. These are really focused and specific potential areas for improvement that we are happy to explore.
Museum executives were hoping to unveil their $ 150 million refurbishment of the Geo Ponti-designed North Building (which will be reintroduced as the Martin Building) and a new 50,000-square-foot visitor center in June 2020, but have pushed back. this in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Their new target date is fall 2021.
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