♦ Best Practices & Bursars: The (Ac)credible University Art Museum

Why would a university allow a third-party organization to exercise influence and control over its art museum?”
- Sharayah Cochran

1. The members and attendees of the first official meeting of the American Association of Museums on May 16, 1906, outside the New York Botanical SocietySource: American Association of Museums, “Proceedings of the American Association of Museums, Vol. 1 (Lancaster, PA: The New Era Printing Company, 1907) accessed March 3, 2011. http://books.google.com/books?id=L99AAAAAYAAJ&dq=American%20Association%20of%20Museums&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false.  
While close to fifty Virginia institutions of higher education house on-campus art museums or galleries, only three hold accreditation by the American Association of Museums (A.A.M.). Ten percent of nationwide museums are accredited, while eleven of the thirty-six A.A.M. accredited museums in Virginia are art museums. Though each university art museum is uniquely fitted within its larger campus community, the A.A.M. accreditation standards give a common “seal of approval” to an already functioning museum.[1] The necessity of art museum accreditation is debatable—especially at the university level. However, the history of the A.A.M., its accreditation process and standards, and involvement in recent university museum issues illuminate the complex relationships between this national authority and the university-mediated art museums.
            Founded in 1906, the American Association of Museums was a collaborative effort made by individuals rather than institutions or government impetus. A year earlier, the National Museum (Washington, D.C.) housed an “informal meeting” to discuss the possibility of an association for the museums of the United States.[2] Originally known as the Museums Association of America, the name was changed during the first official convention (May 15-16, 1906) of the A.A.M. The first meeting also addressed a laundry list of housekeeping matters that included the writing of a constitution, the electing of officers, and the symposium-style presentation of attendees concerns and insights on the museum profession.

            The A.A.M. remained a scholarly, authoritative entity throughout the twentieth century. However, in 1970 the Association’s authority could be tangibly seen in the university art museum as the first group of museums applied for A.A.M. accreditation. Out of the sixteen museums accredited in 1971, two were affiliated with college campuses: Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art and the University of Washington’s Thomas Burke Memorial Washington State Museum.[3] The call for accreditation standards and process, however, did not naturally evolve from the A.A.M.’s sixty-four years of operation.

            In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a report on the status of America’s museums by the United States Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities.[4] To complete the report, the Council asked for assistance from the A.A.M.; the result was presented on November 25, 1968, in "America’s Museums:The Belmont Report."[5] The Report was extremely critical of museums and their operations. One comment regarding the conservation of objects questioned “...whether even a small percentage of the museum in this country are doing anything more than presiding over the steady deterioration of that which they have been instituted to preserve.”[6] Ultimately, the report concluded that the A.A.M. and its member institutions should assemble standards for a program of certification for museums.[7]

            More so than standards, President Johnson’s report and the soon-to-be A.A.M. accreditation were initially linked to funding. One United States Representative specified in a 1969 A.A.M. meeting, “The museum community should develop standards of accreditation against which the excellence of individual museums can be measured. Federal support should not be provided to museums which do not reach a level of quality accepted in the museum field.”[8] The Belmont Report would further influence museum’s eligibility for federal funding as it proposed that a museum’s traditional activities had potential to support an education-based mission.[9] In 1992, the A.A.M.’s report "Excellence and Equity" stated, “Museum missions should state unequivocally that an educational purpose is imbedded in every museum activity.”[10] Simultaneously, the A.A.M. began to lobby museums as educational institutions in search of funding.[11]

            While A.A.M accreditation offers the promise of financial incentive, the program’s lengthy and painstaking process has been successfully undertaken by just over forty of the estimated five-hundred university and college art museums.[12] The formal accreditation process consists of six stages. The first, preparation, includes the gathering of information to determine the museum’s eligibility for accreditation. Second, the application, which is reviewed by the A.A.M., creates a snapshot of the museum for the Accreditation Program to review.[13]

            The most time-consuming and third stage is the year-long Self-Study which covers every aspect of the museum from its physical structure to its local community and audience. The foundation of the accreditation self-study lies in two broad, mandatory questions: (1) “How well does the museum achieve its stated mission and goals?” and (2) “How well does the museum’s performance meet standards and best practices as they are generally understood in the museum field as appropriate to its circumstances?”[14] The questions are designed to allow individual museums, no matter the size of the collection or fiscal resources, to gauge their performance against the ideal picture of themselves. However, this individualized approach is still held to the A.A.M.’s universal standards.[15]

            One A.A.M. standard falling under the broad question of the museum’s practices is the governance. Under the A.A.M. standards, a museum must have a full-time director and at least one paid museum professional.[16] While these governing positions make a museum eligible to apply for accreditation, acceptable proof of “good governance” includes an institutional and strategic plan, a founding document, a list of governing members, financial documentation and budgets.[17]

            Upon the completion of a museum’s self-study, the A.A.M. Accreditation Program performs a 1st Commission Review and grants interim approval signifying that, on paper, the museum is eligible for accreditation. The fifth stage, the site visit, is designed as a checks-and-balance to the self-study. Two museum professionals from institutions similar to the one seeking accreditation evaluate the museum against A.A.M. standards, interviewing staff and touring facilities. The peer reviews from the site visit are submitted to the A.A.M. and evaluated in a Second Accreditation Commission Review (Step 5) before the Final Decision is made in a Commission vote. The museum’s application is then either accepted, denied, tabled or deferred. Applications which are tabled or deferred often require more information for the Committee’s decision or time to correct a concern of the Committee or deficiency in the accreditation process. Denials are often reserved for institutions which were ineligible to apply or  failed to correct issues during the tabled decision period.[18]

2. The second meeting of the American Association of Museums coincided with the recent opening of the Carnegie Museum. Conversation during the June 4-7, 1907, meeting was filled with references to the Diplodocus skeleton that trumped previously found dinosaur fossils in size. Source: American Association of Museums, “Proceedings of the American Association of Museums, Vol. 1 (Lancaster, PA: The New Era Printing Company, 1907) accessed March 3, 2011. http://books.google.com/books?id=L99AAAAAYAAJ&dq=American%20Association%20of%20Museums&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false.  


            The required documentation, invested time, and resulting financial commitment of an institution during the accreditation process can span two years or longer. This brings to light why a significant number of university art museums and galleries are not accredited. In addition to its immediate governance, the A.A.M. recognizes university art museums as having parent organizations. University art museums must formally submit to the accrediting board written, administrative documentation to certify the support and investment of resources from its parent organization.[19] The efforts required to successfully apply for A.A.M. accreditation indicate the perpetuation of not only the museum itself, but its operations under the A.A.M. code of ethics. The Virginia Association of Museums notes that university museums “...have unique challenges; they are rarely operated independently of the university, and hence can be controlled by a Board of Trustees not familiar with museum practice.”[20] Because a governing board may include the larger university board, the larger needs of the school are seen to supersede those of the art museum or gallery. This is not in accordance with A.A.M.’s Code of Ethics, specifying that a museum’s governing authorities “...understand and support is mission and public trust responsibilities.”[21] Each accredited university art museum in Virginia has a governing board separate from that of its parent institution.

            This hierarchy was made apparent in late 2007 when Randolph College (Lynchburg, Virginia) announced its plans to sell select pieces of artwork from the on-campus Maier Museum of Art. The College’s decision to transition from an all-female into a coeducational institution called attention to its finances and resulted in a review by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (S.A.C.S.)—an educational accreditation board. While the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools found nothing amiss in financial records, the College was cautioned about the amount of money spent from its endowment. The decided solution was to sell four major works of art; one of which was originally purchased by students and initiated the collection that would eventually become the Maier Museum of Art.[22] Were the Museum accredited, it would lose its status.[23] This sanction is based on the A.A.M.’s policy stating, “[p]roceeds from the sale of nonliving collections are to be used consistent with the established standards of the museum’s discipline, but in no event shall they be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections.”[24] The A.A.M.’s Code of Ethics further states that a museum’s governance maintain the precedence of public benefit over monetary advancement.[25] Although extremely difficult, museums who lose their accreditation can re-obtain it through an arduous review and (if applicable) the buying back of sold art objects.[26]

                Because of the Maier Art Museum’s lack of accreditation, the A.A.M. had little leverage with which to assist the Museum. However, the A.A.M. recently exercised its influence in response to the suggested sale of the University of Iowa Museum of Art’s Mural (1943) by Jackson Pollock. In 2008, the a sale of Mural was proposed to pay for flood damage to the University, including the art museum. Though rescinded, a similar suggestion reappeared in January 2011 when the Iowa House of Representatives proposed House Study Bill 84. The legislation would give Iowa’s Board of Regents right to sell the painting to fund scholarships.[27] In a public statement, the A.A.M. and the Association of Art Museum Directors (A.A.M.D.) called the endeavor by the University of Iowa Board of Regents an “irredeemable” loss.[28] Were the painting sold, the University’s Museum of Art would certainly lose its A.A.M. accreditation. The public support of the A.A.M., student rallies, and the likely loss of donations to the University effectively halted the bill. The University’s status as a public institution also supported the foundations of the artwork as part of the “public trust.”

            As with many associations, the service and prestige associated with A.A.M. accreditation is not without a fee. First time applicants are required to pay $400, though the A.A.M.’s receipt of funds is contingent upon the acceptance of a museum’s application. In addition, all accredited museums pay annual dues. Member organizations of the A.A.M. (a feature unrelated to the accreditation process) pay a fee of $250, while nonmembers pay $575.[29] The expenses associated with the peer-reviewed site visits are also expenses of the applying art museum for which the A.A.M. suggests budgeting up to $2,700.[30] While these fees do not seem overly exorbitant, those figures on a university budget sheet may represent the cost of exhibition catalogues, student fellowships, or program supplies. Simply, a university museum may not be able to afford the lengthy and costly process. Considering the common understanding that arts programming is often the target of budget cuts in institutions of higher learning, the University Art Museum would need the A.A.M.’s “protection” most.

However, not all benefits that are inherent to the Accreditation Process may require the A.A.M.’s approval. University museum staff are free to create formal policies or self-evaluations and self-studies without A.A.M. oversight. However, the promise of the Accreditation “stamp” provides one thing that a self-motivated staff cannot—buzz. Joy Norman explains the perks of A.A.M. Accreditation in her article, “How Museums Benefit,” citing the efficiency of having a third-party take an interest in the operations of a museum. “[T]he board, the city, state or university may be more readily convinced when outside professionals insist that the requested action is essential to the achievement of professionalism.”[31]
3. One benefit offered to A.A.M. Accredited institutions is the right to display the A.A.M. logo on webpages and other museum publications. Source: American Association of Museums, “Accreditation Logo Downloads”, http://www.aam-us.org/museumresources/accred/participants/Accredited-Museum-Logos.cfm.  


                    Despite the myriad of hoops created by the A.A.M. Accreditation Process, one cannot ignore the effective presence of the organization among museums. With an organization founded by leading museum professionals of the early twentieth century and a process endorsed by an American President, the A.A.M. has become a necessary presence among art museums of all classifications. The inclusion of Cornell University’s art museum in the first class of accredited museums in 1971 (combined with its status as an Ivy League institution) also sets a standard for university art museums around the country. However, the recent events in Iowa and Virginia strongly suggest that universities keep accreditation and the accompanying benefits far from the reach of their campus museums. How would the Maier Museum successfully prove it upholds the A.A.M.’s best practices after having the four paintings improperly removed from the museum? Why would a university allow a third-party organization to exercise influence and control over its art museum?

            The university art museum is under immediate supervision and regulation by its parent institution. Because it does not control its functions independently of its parent institution, the university museum has a distinct disadvantage when compared to independent museums. Under the monetary restrictions of the college or university, the art museum itself lacks the self-sustaining structure and means to operate. However, the possibility exists for the museum to independently serve the university.

            In his 1942 address to college and university museums, former A.A.M. president Laurence Vail Coleman described a uniquely structured on-campus university art museum: “The museum is set up as an independent unit, and the directorship is given to someone who also holds a high place in the teaching faculty. Similarly curators, if there are any under the museum director, may hold double appointments so that the teaching and museum staffs are interlocking.”[32] This integration provides a basis for the art department and its students’ as the primary beneficiaries. According to Coleman, the student is the primary focus of the museum’s physical and operational structure noting, “...exhibit rooms should be designed as work places.”[33] However, such an immediate service to the university is problematic when considering the A.A.M.’s focus on public outreach.

            In governing the university museum’s finances, Coleman emphasizes that, “...every museum have a budget of its own, and that corresponding separate museum accounts be kept in the general treasurer’s office.”[34] This reference to separate accounts points to a means of protection for art collections viewed as financial assets by university powers. From a business standpoint, if the university is not named on the account under which a piece of art is listed as an asset, the institution cannot claim the work as property. As Coleman suggests, an independent art museum which primarily serves a university and plays an active role in art curriculum can function as a “university art museum” does today.

            The private, university art museum may also operate with a nonprofit in partnership with the university. The facilities in which the museum operates may be owned by the university or college, while the collections are entrusted to the museum by another organization. This relationship is seen at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts.[35]  As the parent institution for the Center, Longwood University (Farmville, Virginia) provides facilities while supervising financial activities. However, the separate Longwood University Foundation Inc. owns the museum collection, insulating artwork from total university control. This allows the museum to maintain its mission of supporting the university with educational programing while insuring the presence of the art itself. The Longwood Center for the Visual Arts was also awarded accreditation from the A.A.M., giving the museum potential funding sources and potentially relieving financial burden from the university.

            The majority of American museums operate without A.A.M. Accreditation, adhering to best practices without an authority figure looking over their shoulders. However, as with Randolph College and the University of Iowa, the A.A.M. is more often at odds with educational institutions than their museums. If the university art museum maintains its current function under the parent institution, a conflict in priorities can occur, particularly concerning the view of museum artwork as a campus commodity. To effectively support the university art museum, the A.A.M. must have some sway over the university at large. Such a partnership, however, does not exist. Authority over the university is most readily available from the educational institution’s own regulatory entity. Unfortunately, university accreditation agencies overseen by the United States Department of Education are most concerned with the quality of education offered by the university and ethical workings as a school, not as a museum.

            While considering the scope of university art museums, a larger issue must be addressed: the accrediting agencies of universities are overseen by the United States Department of Education while museums lack a superior government department of art or culture. If the A.A.M. lacks outright power from the government to affirm or regulate museums (even some A.A.M. member museums lack accreditation), what basis of authority does it truly have? Without the support of a government department of art or culture, all museums continue without a guarantee that their traditions and collections will be perpetuated for future generations. However, as the university art museum exhibits, these institutions carry onward, albeit anxiously.


[1] American Association of Museums, “About the Accreditation Program,” Accessed March 3, 2011,http://www.aam-us.org/museumresources/accred/about.cfm.

[2] American Association of Museums, “Proceedings of the American Association of Museums, Vol. 1(Lancaster, PA: The New Era Printing Company, 1907) accessed March 3, 2011.http://books.google.com/books?id=L99AAAAAYAAJ&dq=American%20Association%20of%20Museums&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false.

[3] American Association of Museums, “The Sixteen ‘Firsts’,” Accessed March 3, 2011, http://www.aam-us.org/museumresources/accred/accred-first.cfm. The Thomas Burke Memorial Washington State Museum is now known as the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.

[4] American Association of Museum, “Summary of the Accreditation Program’s History,” Accessed March 3, 2011, http://www.aam-us.org/museumresources/accred/history.cfm.livepage.apple.com.

[5] A.A.M., “Summary of the Accreditation Program’s History.”

[6] American Association of Museums, America’s Museums: The Belmont Report,  ed. Michael W. Robbins (Washington, D.C., 1969), 57.

[7] A.A.M., “Summary of the Accreditation Program’s History.”

[8] Marilyn Hicks Fitzgerald, Museum Accreditation Professional Standards, Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums (1973).

[9]George E. Hein, “Museum Education,” in A Companion to Museum Studies, ed. Sharon Macdonald (Singapore: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2011), 342.

[10]Bonnie Pittman, “Excellence & Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums,” A Report from the American Association of Museums (1992): 16.

[11]Pittman, “Excellence & Equity”: 5.

[12] American Association of Museums, “List of Accredited Museums,” accessed March 3, 2011,http://www.aam-us.org/museumresources/accred/list.cfm?mode=search.

[13] American Association of Museums, “Steps in the Process (Narrative),” accessed March 3, 2011,http://www.aam-us.org/museumresources/accred/process.cfm#ac.

[14] American Association of Museums, “Accreditation Program Standards: The Two Core Questions,” accessed March 3, 2011, http://www.aam-us.org/museumresources/accred/upload/Accre%20Program--Two%20Core%20Questions%201-1-05.pdf.

[15] A.A.M., “Steps in the Process.”

[16] American Association of Museums, The Accreditation Commission’s Expectations Regarding Governance (2005), accessed Feb 25, 2011, http://www.aam-us.org/museumresources/accred/upload/Governance%20ACE%20(2005).pdf.

[17] A.A.M., The Accreditation Commission’s Expectations Regarding Governance.

[18] A.A.M., “Steps in the Process.”

[19] American Association of Museums, Accreditation Commission Policy on: Statements of Support from Parent Organizations (2010), accessed Feb 25, 2011, http://www.aam-us.org/museumresources/accred/upload/2010-Revised-Stmts-of-Support-from-Parent-Orgs-shows-revi.pdf: 1-2.

[20] Virginia Association of Museums, “Types of Museums,” accessed March 3, 2011,http://www.vamuseums.org/Resources/ForMuseumStudiesStudents/TypesofMuseums/tabid/160/Default.aspx.

[21] American Association of Museums, Code of Ethics for Museums (2000), accessed Feb 25, 2011,http://www.aam-us.org/museumresources/ethics/coe.cfm.

[22] Carol Vogel, “Maier Museum of Art to Sell Prized Paintings,” Art Knowledge News, December 15, 2010, accessed February 25, 2011, http://www.artknowledgenews.com/Maier_Museum_of_Art.html. The painting purchased by students is George Bellow’s Men of the Docks (1912); Liz Barry, “Randolph artworks remain in storage, awaiting sale,” WSLS 10, February 10, 2011, accessed March 3, 2011,http://www2.wsls.com/news/2011/feb/10/randolph-artworks-remain-storage-awaiting-sale-ar-835301/. Currently, only one painting has been sold (The Troubadour, Rufino Tamayo) for $7.2 million dollars. The Additional paintings have been removed from Randolph College’s museum and are awaiting a more favorable financial market before they are sold by Christie’s.

[23] Besterman, Tristram, “Museum Ethics,” In A Companion to Museum Studies, ed. Sharon Macdonald, (Singapore: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2011): 439.

[24] A.A.M., Code of Ethics.

[25] A.A.M., Code of Ethics.

[26] Cindy Cole, “Museum of Northern Arizona earns back accreditation,” azdailysun.com, August 16, 2008, accessed March 3, 2011, http://www.azdailysun.com/news/article_ef073ea7-e1bb-52e1-ab7f-661eef7b73b1.html. The Museum of Northern Arizona lost its accreditation in 2002 when the governing board voted to sell pieces of the art collection to pay for the Museum’s operating expenses. The re-accreditation self-study included the Museum’s plan to buy back the sold art, redefine many ethical policies, expand the museum’s collection storage, grow and transfer its endowment to another foundation—all while remaining under budget.

[27] Christopher Knight, “Here we go again with the Iowa Jackson Pollock sale,” Los Angeles Times, February 11, 2011, accessed February 25, 2011,http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2011/02/university-of-iowa-jackson-pollock-sale.html.

[28] American Association of Museum Directors, Press Release, February 11, 2011, accessed February 25, 2011, http://aamd.org/newsroom/documents/AAMDAAMStatementUniversityofIowa2-11-11_002.pdf.

[29] American Association of Museums, “Accreditation Costs.” Accessed March 3, 2011, http://www.aam-us.org/museumresources/accred/costs.cfm; American Association of Museums, “Institute Membership Form,” accessed March 3, 2011, http://www.aam-us.org/joinus/upload/InstitAppFall08.pdf Institutional AAM Membership dues are equal 0.1% of a museum’s operating budget.

[30] A.A.M., “Accreditation Costs”.

[31] Joy Youmans Norman, “How Museums Benefit,” Museum News, September/October 1981, 45.

[32] Laurence Vail Coleman, College and University Museums: A Message for College and University Presidents, (Washington, D.C.: The American Association of Museums, 1942): 33.

[33] Coleman, College and University Museums: 23.

[34] Coleman, College and University Museums: 37.

[35] Longwood Center for the Visual Arts, “Code of Ethics and Declaration of Standards.” Accessed April 3, 2011, http://www.longwood.edu/lcva/info/codeofethics.html.


American Association of Museum Directors. Press Release, February 11, 2011. Accessed February 25,

American Association of Museums. “About the Accreditation Program.” Accessed March 3, 2011.

American Association of Museums. “Accreditation Costs.” Accessed March 3, 2011. 

American Association of Museums. “Accreditation Program Standards: The Two Core Questions.”

American Association of Museums (2010). Accreditation Commission Policy on: Statements of Support

American Association of Museums. America’s Museums: The Belmont Report, ed. Michael W. Robbins.
Washington, D.C., 1969.

American Association of Museums (2000). Code of Ethics for Museums. Accessed February 25, 2011.

American Association of Museums. “Institute Membership Form.” Accessed March 3, 2011.

American Association of Museums. “List of Accredited Museums.” Accessed March 3, 2011.

American Association of Museums. “Proceedings of the American Association of Museums, Vol. 1.
Lancaster, PA: The New Era Printing Company, 1907. Accessed March 3, 2011. http://books.google.com/books?id=L99AAAAAYAAJ&dq=American%20Association%20of%20Museums&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false.

American Association of Museums. “Steps in the Process (Narrative).” Accessed March 3, 2011.

American Association of Museum. “Summary of the Accreditation Program’s History.” 

American Association of Museums (2005). The Accreditation Commission’s Expectations 

American Association of Museums. “The Sixteen ‘Firsts’.” Accessed March 3, 2011. 

Barry, Liz. “Randolph artworks remain in storage, awaiting sale.” WSLS 10 

Besterman, Tristram. “Museum Ethics.” In A Companion to Museum Studies, ed. 
Sharon Macdonald. Singapore: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2011.

Cole, Cindy. “Museum of Northern Arizona earns back accreditation.” 
azdailysun.com (August 16, 2008). Accessed March 3, 2011. http://www.azdailysun.com/news/article_ef073ea7-e1bb-52e1-ab7f-661eef7b73b1.html.

Coleman, Laurence Vail. College and University Museums: A Message for College and University
Presidents. Washington, D.C.: The American Association of Museums, 1942.

Fitzgerald, Marilyn Hicks. Museum Accreditation Professional Standards. Washington, D.C.: 
American Association of Museums, 1973.

Hein, George E. “Museum Education,” in A Companion to Museum Studies, ed. Sharon Macdonald.
Singapore: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2011.

Knight, Christopher. “Here we go again with the Iowa Jackson Pollock sale.” Los Angeles Times

Longwood Center for the Visual Arts. “Code of Ethics and Declaration of Standards.” Accessed 

Norman, Joy Youmans. “How Museums Benefit,” Museum News. September/October 1998, 42-47.

Pittman, Bonnie. “Excellence & Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums.” 
A Report from the American Association of Museums (1992).

Virginia Association of Museums. “Types of Museums.” Accessed March 3, 2011.

Vogel, Carol. “Maier Museum of Art to Sell Prized Paintings.” Art Knowledge News. 
(December 15, 2010). Accessed February 25, 2011. http://www.artknowledgenews.com/Maier_Museum_of_Art.html.