Free the Art! Sell the Art!

Deaccession can be described as a classic euphemism. It was my first impression. I thought it was parody of bureaucracy or an attempt to linguistic camouflage. I remember reading a note saying, “I’m still here for you honey, but I am failing to end the relationship.” This was likely intended to reduce the impact of headlines. A museum of art that “dumps,” “offloads,” “sells,” or simply “gets rid” its possessions sounds like it is experiencing financial problems. However, if you call it “deaccessioning,” some clever wordsmith decides that no one will even notice.

People do 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 deaccession is justified politically. When the Baltimore Museum of Art proposed that Warhol’s art be auctioned off, it was last year. 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 “art historical institutional ethos” reimagining of BMA, suggesting they had specifically deleted works from white men to make a diverse collection.

The sale was controversial. It was the Los Angeles TimesChristopher Knight, Christopher Knight’s art critic called it vandalism, “an ugly scam,” “colossal Art Museum Scandal,” and “cringe-inducing negligence” that was intended to “trash this art collection.” Knight claimed that museums’ collections should not be sold to pay for operating costs. It was as though every museum had infinite funds, and the privilege of keeping everything forever.

Knight is not alone. 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. It seems that this is the intention. Museos need to have all of the art.

This is based on the noble idea that every important piece of art should be accessible to the public and scholars for research. It might disappear if it’s put up for sale, as it has been said.

Of course, it could not. For example, private museums that are operated by collections such as Emily Wei Rales and Mitchell in Potomac (Maryland) are the best buyers. The majority of major collectors will show work that they have in other contexts than at public museums.

However, it’s not true that the argument that large museums need to have all important art in order for the public to view them is valid. These institutions don’t operate in this way. About 2 percent is displayed at any time by the Guggenheim. 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 lesser-known but equally important artists are completely hidden in their storage.

Jane Irish, my partner in crime, is also 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. According to the museum, this was agreed upon.

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. Although the piece was focused on Vietnam, it was done in context of the war against terror. It made a comment on it obliquely. 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. She will not tell the average art patron, who is interested in her work, that it even exists.

You can find it in an underground vault, or another off-site 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.

Similar experiences were had with Philadelphia Museum of Art. There are many people have had similar experiences; it is typical of artists whose reputation is relatively high, but who are not superstars. This is almost like museums buying artworks to keep them hidden away.

Scott Burton, a sculptor, died in 1989 from AIDS. His reputation was deteriorating and prices for his stones tables and chairs were increasing. He left his estate to MOMA, a gesture of generosity which the museum expressed gratitude. Burton wanted his work not to be sold on the private marketplace after his death. Instead, he desired it to remain open to everyone and not be used as lawn furniture in wealthy people’s backyards. It was the essence of Burton’s work, which attempted to blur distinctions between the artistic and the pragmatic. Burton wanted art to be practical.

MOMA is just as sensitive about pricing as private collectors. MOMA kept its collections as Burton’s price dropped in the 2010s. Burton’s influence has been broad, especially on environmental artists who work with stone or other natural materials. However, he didn’t get the chance to see his work as a retrospective.

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.

While the global art economy was estimated to be worth approximately $65 billion in 2019, it fell to just $50 billion in 2020. The market has started to rebound but the COVID-induced decrease in museum attendance caused it to ease its recommendations on deaccessioning. 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. Therefore, it proposes to sell prints and photographs of Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella and other artists at Christie’s. Particularly active was the Brooklyn Museum, which auctioned old masters as well as impressionists for Sotheby’s.

Contrary to larger institutions, smaller ones have experienced more 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. The grounds were damaged by the Nuns Fire in 2017, a 2018 earthquake, and then there is COVID-19. It was once rumored the di Rosa would sell some of its most important works including Mark di Suvero’s sculptures. Many people protested loudly, including the artist. However, di Rosa ultimately deaccession worked by lesser-known artists.

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. It seems unrealistic and undesirable. The idea is that art will continue to accumulate in basements of museums, while officers selling material upstairs may only be able to buy more.

Knight compares deaccessions to scammers on the internet selling fake COVID treatments, which take advantage of vulnerable individuals to make quick money. Many commentators accuse museums of using the pandemic to justify their removal of workers.

This accusation strikes me as absurd. It’s hard to imagine museum directors looking for excuses other than Warhols. Any collection that has Warhols is better than one without them. 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. The art world appears almost indistinguishable in economic theory. There are many funding sources for artists, including corporate and billionaire foundations.

Due to the “generousness” of its contributors (including major donations from Eileen Harris Norton, Rouse Foundation and collector), the Baltimore Museum of Art didn’t sell these works. Manufacturers and government agencies are not often able to access such fundraising strategies. Although the contributions helped lift the BMA from the mire of selling and buying, they also left the BMA with the white-guy problem.

Mixed models have their strengths. 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: funneling 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. Although we may not know what happens to an object after it is unpurchased by a museum, valuable items tend to be kept no matter the owner. The art will continue to circulate, which is better for both museum patrons and the artist.