Ethics in Museums: It’s About KYC More Than a Distance From the Trade

Posted on Museums
Posted on Museums

When looking at the definition of ethical behaviour in museums, museum professionals often default to the practice of being at an arm’s length from the trade of art. This is clearly to avoid anyone profiting from the exposure provided by museums, even though inevitably, many still do. This is understandable, and a good practice that the museum associations in all countries monitor and uphold.

What’s interesting is that there are some ethical issues that are not only relevant to museums, but to the art trade as a whole. These ethical issues are not about private entities profiting from taxpayer-funded institutions, but rather about issues of money laundering and knowing where your funding is coming from. This is an issue that is not exclusively relevant to the non profit or for profit sector.

Both the art market and art non-profit institutions have to deal with high net worth individuals. These are the buyers of art objects on the one side, and the funders of exhibitions, research, development or acquisitions on the other. How do you really know enough to build a reliable relationship with a wealthy individual, be it for a donation or for a sale?

To be honest, even in our business at Vastari it’s difficult to define, even though we don’t really handle in large transactions, and it is often a difficult world to maneuver through. That’s why I’m pretty interested in the talk about the Fifth Anti-Money Laundering Initiative at the Art Business Conference on Tuesday, which will be a discussion between Mathilde Heaton from the Responsible Art Market Initiative and Adrian Parkhouse from Farrer & Co.

Beyond simply thinking about compliance to this Fifth AML Initiative specifically, I think KYC and AML point to an ethical question within any institution. - where is this funding coming from? Given the recent issues with museum donations from families such as Sackler, or the controversy surrounding the funding of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Riga, it is clear that museums need to be thinking about this as much as anyone.

I found a great document online published by the British Museum that outlines the museum’s policies on donations. However in practical terms, it is still quite vague. Point 2.1.2 asks, whether the museum knows who the donor is and if they are of “good standing”. Is it me, or does that sound subjective? In a fast-paced world that seems to keep speeding up by the day, how much can you really get to know those who decide to fund you, and whether they are outstanding citizens?

Lastly, I think this is particularly difficult as the world becomes smaller in terms of borders but also has more border disputes or controversies as a result of politics. As policies from governments change, and the relationships between countries are redefined one day to the next, how do long-term projects get funding? Can something that seems ethical one day suddenly no longer comply?

At the end of the day, we all have to do what we think is best at the time with the facts we have at hand. While I think that the talk on Tuesday will focus primarily on buyers of art and antiques, I hope it will shine some light on what techniques we can use to conduct due diligence on new players that might not be known to an institution for donations as well. The more facts we can get our hands on, the smarter our decisions can be.