Thoughtful Deaccessioning Is Part of Any Art Museum’s Mission. But the Lax Rules We Have Now Will Haunt Us Later

As large institutions move to sell works from their collections, they tacitly authorize smaller ones to do the same.

Erik H. Neil, director and president of the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. Photo: Ed Pollard. Courtesy of the Chrysler Museum of Art.

As the world buckled under the impact of COVID-19, the modern plague wreaked havoc on art museums, especially those that are heavily dependent on tourist dollars to fund operations. Widely published reports indicate that several major museums are facing hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue.                          

In response to the crisis, the board of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), an organization that represents a couple hundred North American museum leaders, temporarily relaxed its guidelines on the use of funds from restricted endowments and from the sale of objects. For about a two-year period ending in April 2022, member institutions are allowed to use funds from sold artworks for operational costs and “direct care” of their collections without fear of sanctions or other punishments. 

The AAMD board’s action, taken in a moment of extreme uncertainty, is understandable given the precarious situation of some museums. The resolution from the board specifically notes that, “This temporary approach is not intended to incentivize deaccessioning or the sale of art.” 

Unfortunately, the announcement had that exact effect. 

Most recently, the full membership of the AAMD narrowly voted down a measure that would have extended the moratorium indefinitely. The close vote suggests that the issue is not resolved.

Moreover, art museums in America have never settled on a clear definition of what constitutes “direct care.” So, as written, the AAMD policy invites abuse. As it stands, each institution provides its own definition. It might be defined as the conservation of a painting; a mat for a fragile drawing; salaries for art handlers; or even a new climate-controlled gallery. 

But where does it end? Currently, there is nothing that would keep a museum from identifying the director’s salary as “direct care,” as unlikely as that may sound. We have neither clarity of definitions nor consensus within the field. If deaccessioning is driven by a director’s whim or by the financial calculations of the auction houses, we are in trouble.

The Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. Photo: Ed Pollard. Courtesy of the Chrysler Museum of Art.

The Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. Photo: Ed Pollard. Courtesy of the Chrysler Museum of Art.

Like many other industries, museums have faced unprecedented financial strain in the past year. Furloughs and layoffs have threatened the livelihoods of thousands of museum employees. In addition, several major institutions have been running large operational deficits for years, or even decades. For those organizations, the extended crisis has severely exacerbated an already bad situation.                

And as artworks, especially contemporary ones, sell for exorbitant prices at auction, museums are considering the benefit of monetizing their collections more than ever.       

But as very large institutions move to sell more works from their collections, the action tacitly authorizes smaller institutions—i.e., nearly all other museums in America—to follow suit, even though the implications will not be the same. 

The nation’s biggest museums may hold as many as two million objects each, so selling a redundant work will scarcely be noticed. At most other museums, a lucrative sale would devastate the collection under the pretense of protecting it. For the mega-museums, selling a fourth-ranked Rothko is inconsequential; for a smaller museum, selling its only Rothko might be an irreparable loss.

What’s more, these smaller museums are most vulnerable to a poorly informed trustee or a bean-counting university officer who may see the sale of an artwork as a convenient means to achieve personal goals or alleviate financial pressure in the short-term, while shirking their duty to uphold the institution’s artistic and educational mission. 

This is not an outlandish fear. Past examples from Delaware, Brandeis, Fisk, and Randolph College, among others, have shown the willingness of trustees or administrators to sell art from their collections to pay the bills or to fund other priorities. With funds in hand from the sale, institutions relinquish control of the ultimate destination of the work of art. Once the artwork is in private hands, it is very difficult to obtain it again for the public good. The Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces that once adorned the galleries in Wilmington are now secreted away.  

Thoughtful deaccessioning is a part of what museums do. Responsible and vibrant institutions regularly examine works in their collections to ensure that they align with the mission and are in acceptable condition. Museum professionals also look for possible duplication and relative strengths and weaknesses. 

The Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. Photo: Ed Pollard. Courtesy of the Chrysler Museum of Art.

The Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. Photo: Ed Pollard. Courtesy of the Chrysler Museum of Art.

At the Chrysler Museum of Art, we are in the midst of a lengthy collection review that includes culling “Lost Cause” memorabilia and other works that have never been exhibited and are irrelevant to our mission. Some of these objects have been transferred to institutions better suited to interpret them. Most of the other deaccessioned works are of lower quality (a loaded word, I recognize), in poor condition, or duplicative. In cases when we do sell works of art, the income is used expressly to add to our collection, not to support operations.  

As a humanist and as the director of the Chrysler Museum of Art, which has a collection that spans thousands of years, I believe that monetizing collections presents a serious problem. The art we hold should not be considered a commodity. In all of this discussion about selling works, we risk inverting the relationship between art museums and the art market. When we open our collections for sale, we undercut one of our basic reasons for existing: the duty to care for artwork for the benefit of the public.  

Artistsliving or deadare special. Sadly, we too often judge them by their price at auction. Great, and even good, artworks are creations that speak to the human condition, our history, our aspirations and our shortcomings. There is great value in examining our past and considering the lessons it may offer for our times.  Presenting, interpreting, and conserving art are parts of our public trust and mission as museums. We have an ethical duty to carry out that mission.  

As we work to build equitable, resilient, and sustainable museums, we should disabuse ourselves of the facile notion that the market is our savior. We need to change the terms of the discussion. Today, no major art museums in America are in danger of shutting their doors permanently. The risk has passed, but damage has been done and weaknesses have been revealed. In this post-crisis stage, we must honestly assess our local environments and consider what is a sustainable operation. 

Museums that have not balanced a budget for the past 10 years might need to radically reconsider the scope of their operations. We will have to resist our alpha tendencies to strive for the grandiose. It is our job to educate the public, donors, and trustees about our needs and then get to work. We must improve our approach to fundraising and position operational and program support on equal footing with bricks and mortar when we make our case for support.

The issues roiling museums today are more intertwined than we have acknowledged. As we turn our focus to the creation of equitable and inclusive environments for our visitors and staff, we must operate not from desperation, but from strength and security.      

Erik H. Neil is the director and president of the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia.

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