‘This Is Something We Can Handle Professionally’: Met Director Max Hollein Defends His Controversial Deaccessioning Proposal

Many in the art industry are up in arms over the world’s richest museum possibly using funds from the sale of artworks to shore up revenue losses.

Max Hollein, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Eileen Travell, courtesy of the Met.
Max Hollein, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Eileen Travell, courtesy of the Met.

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which sits on an endowment of $3.3 billion, floated a trial balloon in the New York Times that it might resort to selling off artworks to make up revenue shortfalls, it sent shock waves through the industry. Reactions were swift, and sometimes harsh; the museum’s previous director, Thomas Campbell, even likened the institution to a drug addict.

Museums sell artworks routinely, and industry guidelines allow it as long as the proceeds are used only to buy more art. (Each year, the Met sells artworks that are duplicates or considered substandard to raise anywhere between $45,000 and $25 million, averaging about $13 million.) But due to the existential threat many museums are facing across the US today as revenues plummet, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) announced that for a period of two years, museums will not be sanctioned if they apply funds from sales of artworks to caring for their collections.

Met director Max Hollein has penned a nearly 2,000-word editorial on the museum’s website laying out the institution’s case. According to the facts as he lays them out, some 70 percent of the museum’s $300 million annual budget is made up of salaries and benefits.

The museum has lost $150 million through 2021 and faces even larger losses in coming years as tourism limps toward a recovery. Management has tried everything, he says: discretionary costs have been zeroed out, a hiring freeze instituted, the exhibition program substantially reduced, and staff slashed from 2,000 to 1,600.

The museum has redirected over $25 million in endowment proceeds to offset operating costs, and the board has ponied up for a $25 million emergency fund. While the financial coffers are emptying out, the storage spaces are overflowing with some 1.5 million artworks.

Hollein spoke to Artnet News this week, rebutting even the museum’s most qualified critics, explaining why the AAMD’s policy change is the right one for the moment, and shedding more light on the its deaccessioning procedures.

The facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Met.

The facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Met.

Many in the field are wondering where the board is in this moment of crisis. Is this the kind of instance when you go to the trustees and say, “If ever you wanted to be the hero, now would be the time?” One editorial even called the $25 million board-generated emergency fund “pathetic.”

One needs to see this in a bigger perspective. First, the Met runs on a budget of about $300 million, and a big portion of that comes from an annual fund that is already given by the board and other donors. Year after year, our board is very generous. Pandemic or not, we are moving forward with major capital projects, such as renovating the Rockefeller wing, where we show artworks from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, and that is all made possible through major donations from our trustees. And we are taking a lot of other initiatives, and drawing on additional funds besides the emergency relief fund. It’s a big crisis and we’re going to get out of it. But one piece of this, and I consider it appropriate, is the use of our deaccessioning funds.

Even people who know what it takes to run a museum, like Tom Campbell and Maxwell Anderson, have compared the museum to a crack addict or called certain potential sales shameful or short-sighted. What do you take from these intense responses?

I think that sometimes even people from the field on purpose neglect the reality that museums have been involved in deaccessioning for decades. It’s not new. So this is something we can handle professionally. To suddenly say that it might be inappropriately handled, I think there’s a bit of a disconnect in that argument. I understand if criticism like that came from outside the U.S., but this is how museums have been practicing in the U.S. all along.

Speaking of handling it professionally, your editorial indicates that it takes a number of months to come to a decision on each item you put up for sale, but the window for using deaccessioning funds for collections care is just two years. Is there any danger of rushing these decisions? 

We are actually taking our time to do what we consider is right. Our first step in this process is to refine our collection care policy at our next board meeting, and only after that will our board consider deaccessioning, which is a rolling process. We’re not suddenly rushing. What we are considering doing, for this limited time period, is to actually allocate the funds that were already being generated from deaccessioning toward collection care and new funds being generated through our deaccessioning program, for this limited time period, not toward new acquisitions but toward collection care, meaning salaries and related costs of our employees who take care of the collection, such as conservators, mount makers, and collection managers. That’s the one change. It’s very contained, and the AAMD policies cap the amount that can be used at the Met for collections care at $15 million a year. It’s not as if we are starting afresh or as if this would be enormous.

Do the critics have a point when they say this will open the floodgates, that if the Met sets an example by using funds from the sale of artworks to cover collections care costs, next thing we know, museums will be using these funds to cover operating costs?

I don’t see it that way because the AAMD was very thoughtful and deliberate and contained about the deadline and there’s a clear definition of what the money can be used for. It can’t be used for fixing the roof, only for salaries for people who take care of the collection, which are staff that no museum should lose. This policy change is a really important measure for us to be able to support our staff and to make sure we can keep our staff as good as we can during this unprecedented moment of crisis. It’s the right decision by the AAMD.

What I see as the slippery slope would be taking money from endowments to use for operations, because if you do that it diminishes the resources a museum lives on. Everything you take off from endowment, that amount generates no more income for salaries for decades to come. That is the slippery slope that some critics should be aware of.

Museums have been taking steps toward diversity, equity, and inclusion, especially since the killing of George Floyd last year. The group of people you mention who are involved in the decision-making process sounds, to be fair, like a group dominated by wealthy white men. Are there pitfalls to that situation that a more diverse group could help avoid?

We have already diversified our board and its committees. And then of course the process goes from curators to department heads, and while the department heads have not changed drastically as of yet, we are in the process of diversifying our curatorial workforce, and so through that you see additional perspectives on this. We have not formalized another layer of a DEIA [diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility] committee on deaccessioning. The more the board diversifies, which it does, and curatorial staff diversifies, which it does, the more the perspectives on the work we might consider deaccessioning diversifies, since it starts with the curators.

The Temple of Dendur in the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of the Met.

The Temple of Dendur in the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of the Met.

The museum’s tax forms actually indicate what artworks the museums has sold each year, above a certain dollar amount per artwork. Can you tell me a little bit about the philosophy behind that?

We have a very public deaccessioning process and policy. Not only do we publish that information but we also sell only via public auction. It’s a very public process that is open to scrutiny and we are committed to real due diligence.

Your editorial indicates what amount of income the sale of artworks can generate, but can you give me any kind of figure on how many objects are sold in an average year? A peak year?

It differs really significantly. There could be a year when it’s only a few, while in some years it’s hundreds. And remember, we’re not talking about masterpieces. These are sometimes works on paper that are duplicates, or photographs that we own in multiples. And we don’t deaccession works by living artists.

Does the museum ever give things away?

We do. There are numerous examples. We have an outstanding plaster cast collection that we can’t properly use and gifted many objects to other museums. We donated a certain part of our costume collection that was more focused on folk and traditional costumes to other institutions. You will always have examples of works we feel would be better off in a different environment, where they could be more properly researched.

The Indianapolis museum Newfields has been in the news for other reasons lately, but is there anything in place at the Met like the ranking system that museum developed for its artworks, that would help to sift through the many objects that could be candidates for sale? 

No. I heard about that. We don’t have that, and I wouldn’t want to do it. We have 1.5 million objects in many very different categories. Our idea of growing and the care of the collection is very different from [former museum director Charles Venable’s]. What we have for sure is the biggest curatorial staff in the museum world, taking care of one of the most significant collections in the museum world. And there is a scholarly rigor and scrutiny that I have great trust in.


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