The auction of 31 Catlin paintings and three works by other artists raised $15.5 million.
The museum had a policy on how to divide money from such sales. Under those rules, nearly $9 million of the auction money would have been deposited in a fund benefiting the anthropology department's collections, of which the Catlins had been a part. Money in that fund could be used for acquisitions or to pay for the "direct care" of collections, which museum policy defined at the time as covering equipment and conservation personnel.
The rest of the money from the sale — nearly $7 million — would have gone into a recently established museumwide collections fund that can benefit any department, including botany, zoology and geology. Museum policy allows the fund to be used only for acquiring items for the Field's collections — not for equipment or staff. (In the case of specimens that are discovered, not bought, the money typically would pay for collections expeditions.)
In 2010, the museum board approved a resolution moving about $7 million in principal and interest out of the collections fund and into a newly created "direct care" fund whose income can be used to pay for equipment and personnel. Only $1 million was left in the dedicated collections fund, according to the resolution document.
In the same resolution, trustees expanded the pool of staff whose positions qualify as "direct care." Income from the anthropology collections fund and the direct care fund can now help pay not only for conservation personnel but also for "registrars, collection management personnel, specimen preparation personnel, collections digitization personnel (and) materials testing personnel."
Zoology curator Mark Westneat said Catlin money helped fund a 2008 collections trip to Palau but that he doesn't have much access to those resources anymore "because they are being used for the valid and important role of paying people."
A spokesman for John Canning, who chaired the Field Museum board in 2010, referred questions to the Field's press office.
O'Shea, the museum spokeswoman, said McCarter never "publicly announced that expenditures of Catlin funds would be limited to acquisitions." The 2004 news release was not a "formal commitment to the public," she said, and when McCarter said the money would fund new acquisitions he did not mean to "exclude any other appropriate use."
She pointed out that McCarter said in a separate 2004 publication — the Sotheby's auction booklet — that the money could go to care for collections. McCarter did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
O'Shea said the museum had spent a "considerable" amount on acquisitions since 2004 but declined to provide a figure.
She also defended using collections funds to help pay certain salaries, saying that caring for and conserving artifacts and specimens is one of the museum's key obligations.
Still, the practice is not common at major museums, experts said. At the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, long considered a peer of the Field, money from the museum's rare sales of collections may be used only to pay for new collection items, not for supplies or salaries, a spokesman said.
Marie Malaro, former director of the museum studies program at George Washington University and the author of a textbook on legal practices for museums, said any institutions using income from collections sales to pay salaries should have a good explanation.
"If you do this, prepare to go under the spotlight and explain how you've been running your organization for the last number of years," said Malaro, who has also served on the Smithsonian's in-house legal team. "There is always a suspicion when this happens that the board and staff have drifted from focusing on their core responsibilities."
Professor Stephen K. Urice, who teaches museum law at the University of Miami School of Law, said using proceeds to pay collections care staff can be an acceptable short-term approach to address financial concerns if used with other budget-balancing measures. But he disagreed with the Field's broad definition of "direct care."
A conservator qualifies, Urice said, but including a registrar — a person who tracks collections data and handles loans — in that category would be "a stretch."
Stanley Katz, director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton University, also said he was troubled by the use of collections income for salaries.
"This certainly runs very close to the line of what generally accepted museum ethics are," he said. "It's the kind of thing that you would only do if you were in deep, deep trouble."
Rare books eyed
As it put the Catlin proceeds to wider use, the Field also was preparing to sell its remaining four paintings by the artist.