A Deaccessioning Thought Experiment

This is for Tyler Green, who hates the idea of museums "deaccessioning" (ie selling) art in order to pay their operating expenses. And it’s based around an imaginary institution I’m calling the Museum of Underappreciated Art, or MUA.

MUA is run by a board of living artists; it’s expected that artists on the board will donate some of their work to the museum. It puts on shows of underappreciated American artists, both living and dead; to do so it relies partly but not wholly on its own art collection. When an artist has a show at MUA, he or she, like the board, is expected to donate works to the museum.

MUA is widely respected yet perenially cash-poor, and operates out of a grand and expensive uptown building. Over the years, it has been instrumental in building or rehabilitating the reputations of many important American artists who otherwise might never have received a major museum show.

In order to cover its substantial annual operating expenses, MUA regularly sells off works of art which have been donated to it. By design, it sells off some of its most valuable works — works by artists who are now being collected by major museums around the country and the world. MUA, in full concordance with the Adrian Ellis rule, restricts all sales to museums and public collections — thereby ensuring that even its deaccessioning helps to build the value and reputation of the artists concerned.

As a result, artists — especially the underappreciated artists for whom MUA exists — are generally very happy to donate art to the institution, and the number of works in MUA’s collection goes up every year, even as it sells off its most valuable works to fund its own operations.

This is an entirely sustainable business model: by selling off a few paintings a year and receiving many more, MUA supports itself and builds up a substantial and enviable collection of American art, sans endowment, fundraising campaigns, or any other non-deaccessioning means of raising cash. Far from being a regrettable necessity, deaccessioning is in many ways the lifeblood of the institution — the practice which proves that MUA has been successful in its mission.

All is well, until the Association of Art Museum Directors, appalled at the fact that MUA is selling off art to fund its operating expenses, bans its members from lending any work at all to MUA. Without access to loaned works, MUA is unable to put on its exhibitions, and is doomed.

When MUA finally closes its doors, Tyler Green uses that fact as supporting evidence for his contention that any museum which deaccessions works to pay operating expenses will inevitably die. Since MUA no longer exists, and history is written by the victors, Green and the AAMD sail smugly on, and the art world loses a unique and important institution.

I’m not sure what the moral of this story is, except that it’s not necessarily the case that any deaccessioning is a sign of failure. Maybe, conceivably, it could be a sign of success. Until, that is, an innovative instution runs into a group of hidebound and rules-based culture czars.

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One Response to A Deaccessioning Thought Experiment

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