Who owns the artwork in the Denver Art Museum? The city audit indicates that some work is unclear. – Denver Post
Who owns the artwork in the Denver Art Museum? A recent audit by the city and county of Denver has raised questions about the ownership of some works, even as city and museum officials deny the need to act on the audit’s findings.
Released January 21, the audit recommended half a dozen behind-the-scenes changes to the way the institution does business, including concerns about board diversity. But it also brought to light a rare clash between auditor 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 of which entity owns what and what each entity’s responsibilities are,” O’Brien wrote. “The museum also needs to strengthen how it manages inventory planning, and its board could better represent the diversity of the communities it serves.”
Museum officials and the office of Denver Mayor Michael Hancock disagreed with O’Brien on the need to update their official partnership. They cited a smooth relationship and planned future actions that will eventually follow O’Brien’s advice.
“The mayor’s office accepted six of the report’s seven recommendations, which will go a long way to addressing concerns raised by the audit,” Hancock spokesman Mike Strott wrote, referring to O’Brien’s recommendations. on how to improve the 35 members. the internal functioning, recruitment and regulations of the board of directors.
“However,” he continued, “we felt it was premature to move directly into creating an entirely new operating agreement before we had implemented these six recommendations, and before having had the opportunity to determine whether a new operating agreement is what is really needed.”
Denver Art Museum officials declined to identify works of art that might be subject to an ownership dispute because, they argued, there were none.
“We don’t really feel like there’s a lack of clarity on this,” said Andrea Fulton, associate director and chief marketing officer of 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 assets. But there is no real misunderstanding between us.
O’Brien’s biggest frustration — and one reminiscent of his contradictory audit of the Denver Zoo in 2017, in which zoo officials offered months of resistance to O’Brien’s office before capitulating — is that museum officials refused to give him 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 an intern once tried to copy the tightly held database, which museum officials consider a valuable extension of their collected works. As a result, he said, museum officials flatly refused to allow him to make a digital copy of the archive for offsite analysis. O’Brien’s staff were also closely watched at times while collecting data from on-site records, he said.
“I don’t like being considered an intern, and I think I have the law on my side. The law is a higher calling than museum policy,” O’Brien said. “That’s one of the reasons the audit took so long.”
The museum’s deputy director, Fulton, disagreed, saying O’Brien’s team had been given full access and training on using the database. She said it would never be acceptable to take a museum work or artifact out of the building, and her archives are treated the same “from a security and integrity perspective.”
“The Museum is not aware of any inappropriate copying of data by any intern,” Fulton wrote in a follow-up email. “The bottom line is that the team had unfiltered access to onsite data.”
O’Brien’s recommendations are advisory, not legally binding, but they are authorized by the charter of the city and county of Denver. O’Brien has worked his way through the city’s prominent cultural nonprofits in recent years, including the aforementioned Denver Zoo, as well as the Denver Botanical Gardens. Its 2018 report on the latter urged gardens to improve safety practices, among other recommendations.
Fulton said museum executives appreciate the outside perspective on how they operate. They were already planning to update many of their practices when they move this year to their expanded campus, following major renovations and construction at 100 W. 14th Ave. and surrounding areas, Fulton said.
“These are windows into different areas of work, and the operations of an art museum are big, wide and expansive,” she said. “And that’s exactly how we digested this audit. These are really targeted and specific areas of potential improvement that we are happy to investigate.
Museum executives had hoped to unveil their $150 million redesign 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 pushed it back following the coronavirus pandemic. Their new target date is fall 2021.
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