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Deaccessioning Part II

“Best of Chicago Art Magazine” series. Originally appeared on the site 10/29/2010

Rachel Hewitt

We previously discussed the basics of the accessioning and deaccesioning processes art museums go through in dealing with their collections, but what about the specifics? A delicate process such as deaccessioning certainly raises a few questions including issues of transparency, maintaining the public trust, and the debate as to whether the current guidelines are enough to keep museum art collections from becoming mere commodities.

Deaccession has become a hot topic in recent years, largely due to financial stress put on non-profit museums. Additionally, because the accessioning process involves a commitment to care for artwork in perpetuity, current museum directors may be forced to deal with the hastily made acquisitions from previous decades.

In a controversial move, in November of 2008, The National Academy Museum in New York chose to sell two paintings in a private sale, which garnered close to $15 million. The proceeds from this sale were used for operating costs, to avert severe financial crisis. On one hand, this seems practical, and the museum did not have to sell its tony Manhattan digs, however, this sale went against two of the American Association of Museum’s deaccessioning guidelines which stipulate that such sales cannot be made in a reactionary fashion, and that funds cannot be used on operating costs. This sale prompted the Association of Art Museum Directors to halt exhibition collaborations and to suspend loans to the museum. In some cases, museums have lost accreditation for this, such as the 2003 case of the Museum of Northern Arizona, which used proceeds from the sales of paintings for an operating deficit. After a change of director and institutional management, the museum was able to regain accreditation. This is an example that the AAM does indeed take action, but it’s still doubtful that a more prominent museum would lose accreditation.

In the wake of such incidents, and due to the fact that the AAM and the AAMD are not legal regulatory bodies, in March 2009, a bill was introduced to the New York State Legislature, that would make the AAM guidelines (which states that proceeds from museum art sales cannot be used for operating costs) law. Specifically the bill says, “No item in a museum’s collection may be used as collateral or may be capitalized.” As of August 2010, the bill has lost steam, due to opposition and the withdrawal of support from the bill’s senate sponsor. According to Michael Botwinick, director of the Hudson River Museum, in this New York Times article he states, “It looks like it is lost for this session and for the foreseeable future.”

There has been both support, and opposition to this bill from institutions (most notably opposition from the Metropolitan Museum of Art), but it is important to focus on the reasoning behind the support for a bill such as this one, whose proponents include the AAMD.

Various writings on museum ethics state again and again that the AAM and AAMD are not regulatory bodies, and there is very little standardization in museum collections policy. Let’s take a look at how transparency plays into deaccessioning, specifically on a local/regional level. Museum directors and curators, along with assistance from trustees and other museum staff will weigh criteria for deaccession, and make a decision. According to AAMD’s document, Art Museums and the Practice of Deaccessioning, “AAMD believes it is also important that a museum’s deaccessioning process be publicly transparent. In each instance, there should be consensus about the integrity of the process by which the deaccessioning decision was reached, even though there may be those who disagree with a museum’s decision to remove a specific object from its collection.”

There are museums that post their recent sales/deaccessioned pieces, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, for example, goes above and beyond. They have a very detailed image-based deaccession database, the overview of which includes the museum’s deaccession policy. The museum also posts objects targeted for deaccession prior to disposal, all done, according to the museum in an article on ArtInfo, to “harness technology as a means of promoting museum transparency.” However, most museums have not followed Indianapolis Museum of Art’s example. The Art Institute of Chicago does not post a list of individual deaccessions or sales on its website, though it does denote revenue from art sales in its annual financial reports. The MCA’s financial report does not, however, specifically mention deaccession or any non-operating revenues. Several attempts were made to get a quote from the MCA, but were ultimately unsuccessful.

The AAM’s Code of Ethics states the importance of the role of the public in a museum’s purpose and mandates that, “collections-related activities promote the public good rather than individual financial gain.” The Code of Ethics also states,

“Museums in the United States are grounded in the tradition of public service. They are organized as public trusts, holding their collections and information as a benefit for those they were established to serve. Members of their governing authority, employees, and volunteers are committed to the interests of these beneficiaries. The law provides the basic framework for museum operations. As nonprofit institutions, museums comply with applicable local, state, and federal laws and international conventions, as well as with the specific legal standards governing trust responsibilities. This Code of Ethics for Museums takes that compliance as given. But legal standards are a minimum. Museums and those responsible for them must do more than avoid legal liability, they must take affirmative steps to maintain their integrity so as to warrant public confidence. They must act not only legally but also ethically. This Code of Ethics for Museums, therefore, outlines ethical standards that frequently exceed legal minimums.”

As we can see, there are plenty of cases where those standards seem to fall by the wayside, in matters of collections, and otherwise , and the crafters of this bill see the need for a more regulatory way to keep art from becoming privatized and see the bill as a way to make the process more streamlined, and above all, publicly available.