To sell art or not to sell: A modest solution for struggling museums

When museums sell art: A better way

5 minute read
Allaert van Everdingen's 'Fishing Boats in a Harbor,' from the Cleveland Museum: Up for sale.
Allaert van Everdingen's 'Fishing Boats in a Harbor,' from the Cleveland Museum: Up for sale.
At Sotheby's auction house in New York last month, the Cleveland Museum of Art put up 32 old-master paintings for auction and the J. Paul Getty Museum offered 15. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Museum of Fine Arts and the Carnegie Museum of Art are selling five paintings each, and the Art Institute of Chicago is selling two Picassos, a Matisse and a Braque at Christie's in London.

"A few years ago sales like these were likely to have gone unnoticed," noted Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times (Jan. 26). "Yet deaccessioning … has become a dirty word and the focus of increasingly intense attention." She concludes: "Institutions that deaccession these days find themselves on the defensive."

The word "deaccession" figures prominently in the vocabulary of art museum professionals but rarely in common conversation, even among the well educated. It refers to the process by which an art museum removes objects from its permanent collection, most often by selling. While deaccession is permitted by professional associations, it's often frowned upon, if not vigorously opposed, by some museum administrators and art critics, and it's generally a mystery to the public— which is interesting in itself, since the objects being sold are supposedly held in the public trust.

'In trust for mankind'

When conducted properly, deaccession is governed by strict guidelines, some of which are common to museums of all kinds and others that apply just to the different fields— art, history, science, etc. These guidelines are rooted in the American Association of Museums' first official document, published in 1925, which states: "Museums, in the broadest sense, are institutions which hold their possessions in trust for mankind and for the future of the [human] race."

For art museums— my focus here, as the former head of one— the most important guideline is the stipulation that the earnings realized from the sale of a work of art must be restricted to the acquisition of other art— preferably objects that will upgrade the collection or fit more closely with the museum's mission. Under no circumstances, however, can the proceeds be used to fund general operations.

Failure to comply with this restriction can result in a museum's losing its accredited status and/or the refusal of other museums to lend objects from their collections to the offending institution. Nothing in the art museum world possesses quite the sacred cow status as this particular guideline; to breach it is to become a pariah.

An essential difference

This "replenishment rule" serves an essential purpose. It forces museum boards to distinguish between cultural and financial assets. Objects in the permanent collection must not be treated as simply one set of fungible properties among others.

But this valid point shouldn't distract us from the equally compelling fact that art museums are under enormous financial pressure, and how they finance their operations will increasingly call for creative thought. Within this context, I believe a fresh look at deaccession is justified.

In the first place, the current guidelines fail to accomplish their intended purposes— namely, to protect the public interest and to encourage prospective donors to donate art works to museums. According to this theory, without firm deaccession guidelines, donors will lack confidence in the willingness of museums to keep what is given to them.

Buried in storage

But the existing policy is in fact an exercise in smoke and mirrors, providing neither guarantees of public access nor commitments to maintain possession. Even if a museum formally accepts an art object, the odds are that the public will seldom see it. Because of limited exhibition space, most museums' collections are consigned to storage.

More important, current deaccession guidelines generally don't prohibit a museum from selling individual objects or entire collections; they merely limit the use of proceeds from the artwork that's sold.

Nor do the current guidelines place restrictions as to whom an artwork might be sold. There are no prohibitions against selling to private collectors, nor are there incentives to sell to other museums, especially to museums in the same city or region. Consequently, a museum can unilaterally remove a work of art from the public domain altogether; and even if it sells the piece to another museum, it may not be to one that's accessible to those who consider the artwork as part of their heritage. So much for the public trust and the public interest.

Loosen the guidelines

I believe that rethinking deaccession guidelines can open promising options. New, more flexible guidelines can be written that preserve the essential distinction between an art museum's cultural and financial assets while simultaneously expanding the legitimate uses of proceeds from the sale of accessioned artwork. This could be done while restricting such uses in ways that prevent the collection from indiscriminately underwriting general operations.

The purchase of new art would, of course, continue to be the primary use of any sale proceeds. In addition, however, a number of object-related (and more importantly, budget-relieving) activities and staff positions could be allowed.

Funds for curators

For example, a museum should be able to use proceeds to establish a variety of restricted endowment funds, thus preserving the principal in perpetuity. The earnings from these funds, rather than replenishing the collection, could pay the salary of a conservator and/or the expenses associated with a conservation laboratory.

Other possible uses of such funds might include the addition of education professionals to help interpret the collection to the public, or curators to help maintain the collection.

Current deaccession guidelines perpetuate a museum culture in which objects are ends in themselves, more important than their use to educate, to inspire, to stimulate, to empower—even more important than their care and preservation. They help create and sustain a climate in which works of art are fetishes.

Rethinking deaccession guidelines would not only reduce some of the smoke and mirrors associated with museum operations. It might also stimulate novel ideas about financing museums while legitimately expanding their basic mission.♦

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