The Deaccessioning Debate

I’ve been catching up on the art blogs this slow news day, which means catching up on a long and sometimes confusing debate about deaccessioning which was sparked by the sale of two paintings by New York’s National Academy. Ground zero for this debate is Donn Zaretsky’s Art Law Blog, but a lot of big names have been drawn in, including David Ross, the former director of both the Whitney and SF MoMA, who has been commenting chez Richard Lacayo.

Ross and Lacayo talk of a museum collection as an accretion of curatorial decisions: "museums collect most heavily when trustees and other donors are prospering," says Lacayo, adding that "in any given period a museum collection is a combination of available funds plus curator/director taste."

But that’s not really true at all. While there are isolated cases of generous benefactors leaving large amounts of cash to art museums, as Leonard Hanna did in Cleveland or David Rockefeller did in New York, most of the time it’s private collectors who do the acquiring, rather than institutions. The institutions then collect the collectors, and persuade them to leave all or part of their art to the museum.

As a result, most museums have large quantities of art that none of their directors ever particularly wanted, which ended up in their collection thanks to some bequest or other, and which will, realistically, never be shown. Even if such art is sold to a private individual it will still be seen by more people than if it’s kept in a basement somewhere. And if the sale conforms to Adrian Ellis’s proposed rule, I don’t see any downside at all. Here’s the rule:

You can deaccession and spend the money on whatever you want – a new roof, working capital, education programs, or even a boffo night out with your chums on the board — provided that you ensure that the institution or individual to whom you sell commits in some binding form to equal or higher conservational standards and equal or higher public access.

It’s a bit like a Creative Commons license for art, and it seems like a great idea to me. Consider the Eakins which once belonged to the National Academy and now belongs to LACMA: this is a classic positive-sum bargain which benefits both institutions and the general public.

Ellis’s rule even provides something of a bridge to Tyler Green, who’s very much on the side of the no-deaccessioning absolutists. Writes Green:

If an institution, such as the National Academy or someone else, can’t operate effectively enough to stay open, it should close. Then it should disperse its collection to non-profit institutions — to other museums. This way art collections held in a public trust remain held in a public trust.

If the National Academy were to adopt Ellis’s rule, then the worst-case scenario would effectively be what Green is talking about here: it keeps on selling off its collection to other museums until there’s nothing left. On the other hand, if such sales manage to keep the institution alive and thriving, attracting new artists who donate valuable examples of their own work, then we end up at a place which is unambiguously better than closing. As Zaretsky says, "meet Mr. Pareto".

I do, however, have sympathy for Green’s idea that selling off a permanent and irreplaceable part of your bequest in order to meet temporary liquidity needs is generally a very bad idea. Which is why it might be good to have some kind of "uptick rule" in place as well, which makes it much easier for flush, successful museums to deaccession than those who are in desperate financial straits. The best time to sell off extraneous art is when the market is hot, when donors are giving you and other museums lots of money, and when you can deaccession in a considered and strategic manner. The worst time to sell art is when you need to plug a fiscal hole, the market has tanked, and you flail around to find the most valuable paintings in your collection.

In any case, I do hope that this debate makes it out of the blogosphere and into the realm of the Association of Art Museum Directors, whose prissy fatwa on the National Academy is a classic example of rules-based rather than principles-based silliness. With a bit more imagination and a bit less ideological fervor, everybody in the museum world, including the all-important general public, could benefit.

Update: Lacayo asks whether "a standard of ‘equal or higher public access’ to a work of art mean that institutions in large cities could only sell to institutions in cities of roughly the same size". That’s easy: No, it doesn’t. Public access means the number of members of the public who actually see the work in question: if the work is permanently in storage, that number is zero. And it’s entirely possible that even if the work is on show, more people will see it at a big museum in a small town (like Crystal Bridges) than at a small museum in a big town (like the National Academy).

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