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Art Museums Selling Art: Is it a good thing?


Though many museums and cultural institutions have collections described as permanent, the works of art and culture collected, owned, and cared for by these organizations are perhaps in greater flux than was once realized. With increasing financial pressures, significant changes in cultural mores, and the recognition that most museums can exhibit only a fraction of their holdings, attitudes about the meaning and relevancy of what is considered permanent. The most recent definition of deaccessioning provided by the Association of Art Museum Directors—which provides standards and recommendations regarding the practice—is “the process by which a work of art or other object is permanently removed from a museum’s collection.”

So, in what circumstances should a museum sell its works, and how? Certainly the sale of deaccessioned works can bolster an institution’s acquisitions efforts, fund ongoing preservation work, better support the organization’s staff, or diversify its offerings. In 1988, the now-defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art, auctioned a series of paintings (including Frederik Hendrick Kaemmerer’s The Beach at Schevening, Holland and Emile Renoug’s The Helping Hand) that were beloved in the community and considered important by art historians to raise $1.65 million, a large portion of which was applied to the subsequent purchase of a John Singleton Copley portrait of Thomas Amory. At the time, this was hailed in the Washington Post as “the picture [the Corcoran] most needs.” However, this conversion was broadly controversial within the Gallery’s own curatorial staff, as well as throughout the community. More recently, similar efforts have also met with anxiety and professional and community upheaval. A controversial 2020 deaccession effort by the Baltimore Museum of Art—which was cancelled at the last minute—the sale of works at auction was intended to fund the acquisition of art by women and nonwhite artists, to bolster internal diversity efforts at the museum, and to make admission to special exhibitions free. This May, the Newark Museum of Art sold several works, including Thomas Cole’s The Arch of Nero, a move that caused scholars to protest in an open letter denouncing the deaccessioning move as a “senseless monetization” of art from the permanent collection. Several other museums have looked to their collections for similar purposes, including the Brooklyn Museum and the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York.

In many of these instances, the guiding principles outlined by museum leadership has been to enable diversification of collections to better represent and serve their communities, and to provide for the ongoing care of the sometimes thousands of work they currently hold—what we see as clear and worthwhile goals. And these are instances that are recognized and allowable through the protocols outlined by the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums, the two governing agencies that help museums set policies. As long as there are no covenants governing the works—such as donor intent—this is legal and seemingly should not be controversial. While the practice has its fair share of detractors, who hold that museums must act first and foremost as stewards of their collections, many, like us—both within and outside the art world—understand its practical applications.

Glenn Lowry, Director of the Museum of Modern Art and a leader in the museum profession has publicly affirmed that “American museums are ‘collections rich/cash poor.’Christopher Bedford of the Baltimore Museum has been emphatically clear that the Museum’s deaccessioning initiatives are key in realigning the museum with the community values. In a 2020 op-ed in The Art Newspaper defending the BMA’s decision to deaccession works, curators Asma Naeem and Katy Siegel, wrote that museums “are not mausoleums or treasure houses, they are living organisms, oriented to the present as well as the past.”

The leaders in the museum profession are torn between an innate desire to preserve and protect works in their collections and to also ensure their institutions’ relevancy in a changing world. Both of us have had to confront and consider the pros and cons of culling collections in our respective museums. One thing on which we agree is that it is not financially nor intellectually sustainable to remain in the status quo.

Most American museums established in the early part of the 20th century went on a spending spree and are now unable to display much more than 10% of their collections at any given time. As a consequence, their programming—fundamental to their mission—is underfunded. Art museums must reevaluate their role as custodians of art, and instead act as institutions that serve their diverse communities.

It remains a contentious issue that perhaps roils the world of art museum directors more than it does the general public they serve. But, ultimately, museums need to consider if the prerogatives that were relevant 50, or even a 100 year’s, ago remain valid today. Can we use collections creatively to serve our mission and consider selling those items that no longer directly fulfil that mission, or even give opportunities to realize funds that enable us to introduce long-term museum support and a new level of acquisition that perhaps mirrors the early 20th century, but reflects the nature of society a hundred years later?

This is a contentious issue that will not be resolved anytime soon, nor will there ever be full consensus on what is right and just when it comes to the question of permanence in the fact of the real challenges museums face in becoming places where people come together, uplifted and enlivened by art. What is clear, however, is that museum directors and their trustees must examine any deaccessioning initiatives through many lenses, fully understand the ramifications of their decisions, and approach this with absolute transparency.

Robin Nicholson and Terrie Sultan

Nicholson and Sultan are former art museum directors, each with more than 30 years of experience in the field. In May of 2021 they founded Art Museum Strategies LLC, which offers advice to museums on a range of issues including collections policies and strategic deaccessions.

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