January 05, 2009

deaccessioning to pay the bills

Spurred on by the troubles at MOCA and other institutions, there’s a debate / discussion happening about museums and the practice of “deaccessioning,” or selling off art works in order to keep the doors open. Generally accepted practice is that it’s OK to sell off art if the proceeds are used to buy more art…not to cover ongoing operating expenses. This will be the topic of the year in art / museum land, because at the core of the discussion is the nature and role of the museum itself, and the relationship the museum has with the work it contains and the audience it serves.

Here are a few choice links and excerpts to get you up to speed.

Jori Finkel’s piece in the New York Times did the usual tennis-match back and forth on pros and cons, with the National Academy in New York as the ground to the debate’s figure…

Many museum trustees are themselves collectors and may have been tempted during the recent art-market boom to think of art as a commodity to be bought and sold at will. That attitude may explain why so many museum directors are using their trade group to build a strong firewall around the idea of a permanent collection. They are speaking not just to each other but to their own trustees.

I loved Berkeley professor Michael O’Hare’s take on the language around “deaccessioning.”

Museum people and art people like to call this deaccessioning, not selling, perhaps because the fine art world is so holy and refined and ineffable and generally ever so much more so than the rest of human enterprise that it just wouldn’t do to use a term so crude and trade-soiled. Gentlemen do not buy and sell, after all, any more than they write, paint, or sing; they have people to do that for them. I like to call it, um, selling, because it looks to me like exchanging a chattel for money, but someday I may acquire the polish and patina of a refined person and learn better manners.

Donn Zaretsky on his Art Law Blog on the fuzziness of institutional budgeting and higher-level goals:

Another question worth exploring is whether it’s sensible to draw such a sharp distinction between the acquisition of art, on the one hand, and other ways museums spend money, on the other. Take, for example, Whitechapel Gallery, only because it was just in the news earlier this week. It recently completed a $20 million renovation and expansion — a “desperately needed” makeover. “The added space will allow the gallery to remain open continuously, whereas before it had to close about 10 weeks a year when installing new art. Its educational space was too small to accommodate even an average-size school class, and the former library had no wheelchair access.” Is it not possible to see those things as every bit as important to the institution’s mission as the acquisition of additional artwork? Is keeping the museum open an extra 10 weeks a year not a good art-related reason? Does expanding space for education not count either? Why should we automatically assume that buying art always justifies a deaccessioning, but that no other use of proceeds — no matter how important to an institution’s mission — ever can?

Richard Lacayo of Time riffs on Zaretsky

Zaretsky makes the best developed case I’ve seen for easing up the taboo on deaccessioning, and I might even be more inclined to agree with him were it not for one thing. If the profession didn’t discourage museums from using their collections as a piggy bank, I suspect a lot of them would be doing it more often, and not bothering with the hard work of fund raising. Zaretsky calls this a slippery slope argument, which it is, but one that I find compelling because in recent years we’ve seen a number of institutions already going down that slope.

And Tyler Green couldn’t disagree more with Lacayo and Zaretsky..

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. … The perpetuation of a failed institution isn’t what’s important: The art is. It’s imperative that organizations do what is best for the art, for the public, and for the legacy of the artists whose work is in the collection. Sometimes that means closing.

This is a debate worth watching; I’m still undecided on the issue.