Free the Art! Sell the Art!

Deaccession has been a well-known euphemism. At first, it seemed like a parody or attempt to linguistic camouflage bureaucracy-speak. This was likely intended to reduce the impact of headlines. A museum of art that “dumps,” “offloads,” “sells,” “liquidates,” etc., sounds like it is having financial problems. However, if you call it “deaccessioning,” whatever weasel terms are used to describe the process, no one will even notice.

However, people notice.

It is widely acknowledged that there can be legitimate reasons for a museum to trim its collection—for example, to repatriate looted artworks to their native lands. Sometimes, even deaccessioning can be justified politically. The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), proposed last year to sell Warhol’s artwork. Last Supper Clyfford Still abstractions and Brice Marden abstracts at an anticipated total value of $65million, curators justified the sale by pointing to the institution’s “equity-based” vision. They claimed that the sales were part of an “arigorous reconfiguration” of BMA’s “art historical ethos and institution ethos, suggesting they had specifically deleted works from white men to make room for a wider collection.

However, there was a lot of anger at the sale. It was the Los Angeles TimesChristopher Knight, an art critic called it “vandalism,” “an ugly fraud,” a “colossal scandal in the museum of art” and “cringe-inducing negligence” intended to “trash art collections.” Knight claimed that sales of a museum’s collections should not be used for operating expenses. It was as though every museum had unlimited resources and could afford to keep everything.

Knight isn’t the only one. Many commentators believe that no museum should ever disobtain any significant work of art except to repatriate it—particularly when the museum proposes to put the work back onto the private market. This seems to be the idea. Museums should display all art.

That is because it follows from the admirable idea that all important art should always be open to scholars and the general public. The art might be lost if it goes up for auction.

However, it might not. Private collections that operate museums such as Emily Wei Rales’ Glen-stone, Potomac, Maryland, are some of the most active buyers in the art market. The majority of major collectors will show work that they have in different settings, such as at public museums.

The argument that big museums must have the most important art so it is accessible for all to see is a false one. This is not the way these institutions work. The Guggenheim only displays about 2% of its entire collection at any one time. In 2015, according to the BBC, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) was showing 24 of its 1,221 works by Picasso, one of its 145 by Ed Ruscha, nine of its 156 Mirós. Many important, but less well-known artists are stored completely in storage. This makes virtually all their work unnoticeable.

Jane Irish is my partner and a painter. Jane Irish, my partner in crime is a painter. In a complex deal, she sold her antiwar painting to her gallery. Operation RAW Tableau to a collector, who donated it immediately to the Hirshhorn Museum in D.C., the whole process shepherded along by curators at the museum. It’s an extremely common method for artworks to be added to a museum collection. This collector believed the piece, a historic treatment of Vietnam Veterans Against the War should be displayed in Washington, D.C. It appeared that the museum agreed.

Jane seemed happy with the deal at the time. Not only is it a nice résumé item to be in the Hirshhorn’s collection, but the heart of her decadeslong project is bringing attention to the courage of anti-war veterans. Even though the artwork was focused on Vietnam it was created in the context the war on terror. The work made no comment about the current situation. The painting was not shown by the Hirshhorn during the Afghan and Iraq wars. It hasn’t been seen by her since its sale. It is not her property. It is unlikely that the average patron of art who may be interested in her artwork will ever find it.

You can find it in an underground vault, or another offsite storage location. She could make a set of appointments to arrange for her own access. It is possible that a scholar might be able to access the information through a complicated request process. It is unlikely that anyone will stumble upon it by chance and be interested.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art was a very similar experience for her. There are many people have had similar experiences; it is typical of artists whose reputation is relatively high, but who are not superstars. These museums almost seem to be buying art works in order not to expose them.

Scott Burton, a sculptor who died from AIDS in 1989 due to his fame and rising prices of his tables and chairs, left his estate and assets to MOMA. The museum was grateful for this act of generosity. Burton did not want his work to go on the open market. He wanted his work to be accessible to all and that it was not lawn furniture to rich people’s yards. It was the essence of his work, which tried blurring the lines between practicality and aesthetic. Burton wanted works of art people could actually use.

MOMA seems to be as price sensitive as private collectors. MOMA retained its inventory as Burton’s values fell in the 2000s. Burton’s works have been influential on many people, including “environmental artists” working in stone. But he did not get the retrospective that he envisioned.

Burton could have sold his art to an estate, with clear guidelines. It is not clear whether privately-owned works are more likely to be displayed in public than those from major museums. I don’t know the exact method of measuring it. However, it is not clear that this comparison favors public museums.

In 2019, the world’s art industry was valued at $65 billion. However, it plummeted to $50 billion by 2020. The market has started to rebound but the COVID-induced decrease in museum attendance has led the Association of Art Museum Directors, which is now allowing deaccessioning guidelines to be relaxed. Temporarily, the Association of Art Museum Directors would not sanction museums using money obtained from selling art as a source of general operating costs.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum—which displays less than 5 percent of its holdings—estimates its COVID-related losses at $150 million, for example. The Metropolitan Museum proposes that prints and photos by Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella be sold at Christie’s. Particularly active was the Brooklyn Museum, which auctioned old masters as well as impressionists for Sotheby’s.

Smaller institutions are more likely to have experienced budget crises. A series of semibiblical pestilences has hit Napa Valley’s di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art. This center focuses on northern California artists. In 2017, the Nuns Fire destroyed the site; in 2018, there was an earthquake; now, there is COVID-19. There was speculation that di Rosa might sell its finest works, such as Mark di Suvero sculptures. The di Rosa finally deccessioned works of lesser-known artists, despite protests from the artist and others.

The Association of Art Museum Directors is expected to return to its original position after the pandemic. Even though an institution has experienced what the di Rosa Center did, it has no legal reason to deaccession. It can only do so to finance future acquisitions. This is both unimaginable and undesirable. This suggests that there is a constant accretion in art basements with officers selling material upstairs to purchase more and possibly to each other.

Knight likens recent deaccessions with internet scammers who sell ersatz COVID remedies, exploiting vulnerable people to make big money. Many observers have said that museums are using the pandemic in order to eliminate work.

I find this charge to be bizarre. Museum directors shouldn’t be looking for reasons to dump Warhols. A collection with Warhols will always stand out more than one that doesn’t. Imagine someone sitting in the National Gallery, rubbing his eyes and saying “Now is our chance to auction off this Titian!” is implausible.

It’s not hard to imagine them saying, “We have no storage space.”

One area of art looks more like an old market. Supply and demand determine prices. Private galleries and auction houses link buyers and sellers. Others are socialist with government patrons such as local or national galleries and state agencies responsible for installing art in public places. A third aspect of the art world is that it looks almost like nothing in economic theory. It is an archipelago made up foundations, billionaire or corporate funding sources and public-private bureaucracies with different goals and emphases.

Thanks to the generosity of donors, which included major contributions from Eileen Harris Norton and the Rouse Foundation, the Baltimore Museum of Art was able not to sell the works. These fundraising techniques are rarely available for manufacturers or government agencies. BMA was lifted out of the dirty worlds of buying and selling, though the donations left them with a white-guy problem.

This mixed model is a good option. The mixed model can be found in many places, including public megamuseums as well as smaller private museums. It also includes galleries, public squares, private houses, and private residences, which are filled with many types of art. If this leads to problems—for example, to concentrations of some of the good art in the hands of wealthy people, or to banal public art sponsored by governments, or to obscure and problematic lines of patronage—it also leads, overall, to a pretty wide public access to a pretty good range of works at reasonable cost.

This would make it desirable to improve this. To have good art available for more people, more often. This is the real goal of public policy and should also be the goal of Association of Art Museum Directors. They should avoid one outcome: funnelling all art to the Met’s vaults.

At least in some cases, this means that art is set free from the dungeon or paroling beauty into the outside world. While we don’t know exactly what will happen after the museum buys a work, it is common for valuable objects to remain intact no matter who they belong to. It’ll benefit everyone, patron and museum alike, to keep the art circulating.