Monday, February 22, 2010

Deaccesioning in the Museum World: A Message from the Director

Today we hear again from guest poster Brian T. Allen, the Addison Gallery's Mary Stripp & R. Crosby Kemper Director, this time regarding deaccessioning policies in museums:

Recently I returned to Andover from the annual meeting of the Association of Art Museum Directors, the key organization representing the major museums in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Over the past few years, the dominant issue at this conference has been the restitution of stolen art, primarily Nazi loot but more recently antiquities. On both accounts the Addison could take a politely interested but ultimately distanced view. But in this past meeting in January a new issue emerged to displace the mighty topic of restitution: the sale of art from permanent collections to pay for operating expenses.

The centrality of this issue merely reflects the temper of the times. Many museums are under enormous financial pressures as endowments have dropped, visitorship continues a long term decline, and donors have become strapped for disposable cash. Many museums facing financial problems have substantial assets – art in the permanent collection – and more and more directors and trustees are seeing the sale of some of these assets as a quick fix.

The Association of Art Museum Directors decided years ago to thwart temptations of this kind with a simple, straightforward rule. It is a violation of museum ethics to use money from the sale of a work of art accessioned in the permanent collection for any reason other than the purchase of new art.

There are many reasons for this standard. When an object enters a permanent collection, it becomes part of the history of the museum and part of the cultural heritage of the community the museum serves. It enters the collection via a curatorial decision that it will advance the educational mission of the museum. Selling art to pay the bills is an assault on the mission and heritage of the museum and an affront to the proposition that art has a unique power to educate and to inspire.

There are practical reasons as well for this standard. Selling art to support operating expenses puts the museum on a very slippery slope indeed. Trustees and major donors, if they know that this avenue is available for balancing the budget, will pressure museum directors and curators to sell art rather than write checks themselves to support the museum. Why should a donor give money to a museum that has ample assets to liquidate as opposed to the local animal shelter, theater company, or hospital that has no such assets? The risks to the museum are enormous, and the effects of selling art to pay operating expenses are deeply corrosive.

This issue will stay with us for some time. The Association of Art Museum Directors has its standard but the American Association of Museums, which represents art museums, historical societies, house museums, and science and children's museums, has a critically different standard. The American Association of Museums allows for the sale of art to support and purchase new art and the undefined cause of “direct collection care.” Each institution is free to interpret this rule in its own way. It could be interpreted liberally to include not only conservation of works of art but salaries for registrars, curators and even for the portion of the electric bill commensurate with the percentage of the museum building occupied by art storage. Given the terrible state of museum finances, this may indeed evolve as the museum standard as a way to smuggle new money into museum coffers.

Many museums are seeking to tap endowments dedicated to acquisitions for operating expenses, and these museums are not institutions at the margins of the museum world. In this dangerous and ambiguous world, there will be much more to report to you in the future as this story unfolds.

Posted by:

Brian T. Allen
The Mary Stripp & R. Crosby Kemper Director

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