Monday, May 18, 2009

Dallas Museum of Art Refuses to Disclose Contract for King Tut Exhibit

The Dallas Morning News reports that in January, the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) refused its formal request for a copy of the "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" exhibit contract because the DMA promised exhibit organizers absolute confidentiality.  The Dallas Morning News made its request based on a state law requiring most nonprofit organizations to make their financial records public. However, the museum refused to discuss basic contract terms and will not say how many people saw the exhibit for free.  The DMA said it does not compile statistics on ticket sales or average price per ticket; that's under the organizers' control.  DMA lawyer Gary Powell asserted that the state law on nonprofit groups applies only to those with "a specific problem – lack of accountability," and according to him the museum DMA was not such an organization.  "The DMA's Board of Trustees provides a very appropriate and vigorous oversight of the DMA's actions and ensures that the revenues and donations the DMA receives are used wisely and appropriately," Powell wrote in a letter to the Dallas Morning News.

Tom Kelley, a spokesman for the Texas Attorney General's Office, rejected the museum's legal interpretation.  "Nonprofits must comply regardless of the level of board oversight," he said. But he also noted that the law does not say whether a contract constitutes a financial record.  To assess the oversight issue, the Dallas Morning News asked to review minutes of DMA board meetings at which the Tut exhibit was discussed. The museum again refused, saying that they were confidential.

The Dallas Morning News also asked the city of Dallas for a copy of the Tutankhamun contract. City officials said they did not have one and had no right to see it.  The newspaper argued that the city had such a right because the DMA receives extensive public support.  The taxpayer-financed Convention and Visitors Bureau, for example, says it spent about $2 million to promote the exhibit. The city owns the museum building, the land and some of the permanent collection. It charges no rent. It spends millions on DMA utilities and other bills.  City lawyers referred the newspaper's request to the state attorney general's office. In April, lawyers there sided with the city, claiming that the  government has a right of access to private contractors' records only if the documents are maintained on behalf of the government.


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