In Hard Times Should Museums Be Allowed to Sell Their Artworks?

Dawoud Bey

[Part of “Best of Chicago Art Magazine” – originally posted in July, 2009 on Art Talk Chicago (w/19 comments)]

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   “Art Institute of Chicago Lays Off 22 Employees,” “Met Museum Lays Off  14% of Staff,” “Detroit Institute Dismisses 56 Full-time and Seven Part-time Staff,” “Spertus Cuts Its Hours to 2 1/2 Days A Month,” “High Museum Lays Off 15 More Workers,” and on and on it goes, across the country from one region to the next and from one institution to another. These are hard times for everyone and museums are no exception. Along with a growing string of layoffs, museums across the country are also being forced to cancel or postpone exhibitions that have been on the drawing board – in some cases – for years. 

      Hard times are challenging museums to meet their fiscal obligations and remain solvent by any means necessary. In this climate it isn’t difficult to imagine that some institutions are looking to the works on their walls (or more likely in the their collection vaults) as a possible solution to to their financial problems. Given that most most museums are only able to exhibit a very small number of the works that they have in their collections, can they be blamed for casting a wishful eye in the direction of their valued treasures as a way out of pressing circumstances? Those objects do belong to them don’t they? Well, it’s not as simple as that. Selling works from ones collection is a decision that no museum makes lightly and when they do it is supposed to be done under very stringent circumstances. Deaccessioning, defined as permanently removing a work from the collection of a museum, is a complicated decision and one which is often fraught with all sorts of potential peril.

      This is true for a number of reasons. While it may seem simple on the face of it, deaccessioning raises a host of sticky legal and ethical questions. For one thing museums are public institutions. As such the artworks in them are presumed to be held in public trust and for the public’s good and education. Additionally the works are most often donated or acquired with the financial assistance of trustees who attach stipulations or conditions to their gift. That usually doesn’t include blanket permission to then turn around and sell the donated work (or work acquired with combined funds from trustees) to pay for the museum’s air conditioning bill for example. If this were not the case most works of art would almost certainly not be donated to museums. There are also professional codes of conducts that museums agree to adhere to as publicly funded institutions. Deaccessioning is usually permissable only in cases where the object is in an extreme state of deterioration or there are duplicate or comparable objects (in the case of photographs and prints for example). There are other reasons, but even when these reasons are met deaccessioning funds secured by the sale of an art work is supposed are to be used only for the acquisition of other objects. And even when these conditions are met deaccessioning must first be approved by a committee within the museum and then further approved by the board of trustees. It isn’t something akin to returning a now ill fitting or no longer desired item of clothing to the store for a refund. Nor is it akin, for that matter, to selling a privately held work of art at auction or privately from ones own personal collection.

      Recently in New York museum directors and administrators banded together to petition the New York State Legislature from making the existing deaccessioning laws even more stringent. The museum directors and administrators, including those from the Met, the Guggenheim, and the Whitney, were seeking to head off proposed enhanced deaccessioning legislation which was the result of severall recent prominent and controversial cases in which museum attempted or in fact did sell works from their collection in the face of economic pressures. Brandeis University for example threatened to sell off all 6,000 of the art works in its Rose Art Museum’s collection in order to compensate for a steep drop in the college’s endowment. Protests from Brandeis students and others resulted in at least a temporary suspension of this wholesale deaccessioning attempt.

      However one may feel about it, in the current fiscal climate there is sure to be ongoing controversy around this issue. What is to be done? Detroit Institute’s director Graham Beal states, “If it were suddenly legitimate to sell artworks and use the proceeds for anything other than acquisitions there would be wholesale cannibalization of many museums.” Yale School of Art dean and art historian Robert Storr has said of Brandeis’s threatened sale of work from the Rose Art Museum, “They are throwing away one of their prime assets.” In a recent interview in TIME magazine Art Institute director Jim Cuno said of deaccessioning, “We here have been very careful with deaccessioning. We do it very infrequently.” 

      To sell or not to sell? What do you think?