In the News: Selling Art to Pay the Bills, the Practice of Deaccessioning

Charles Shepard, FWMoA President & CEO

Recently, there has been a growing number of stories in the news about museums selling art from their collections, and a number of you have called or written to ask just what’s going on. Before I share my thoughts about this current situation of seemingly random institutional art sales, let’s take a minute to think about how this could even happen. This selling of art from a museum’s collection begins with a little understood, formal process called deaccessioning that, essentially, has the end goal of officially separating a particular art object from the rest of the accessioned (and thus institutionally protected) art objects in a given museum’s collection. The deaccessioned object remains, for a time, “under the roof” of said museum until its fate is decided; but, generally that fate was known before the deaccessioning “trial” had even begun. For example, the deaccessioned object might have been discovered to be a fake or reproduction and, thus, its logical fate might be relegation to the dumpster so that it would never find its way back into the marketplace. Or perhaps the deaccessioned object was somehow damaged beyond reasonable repair and, again, sent to the landfill. A happier ending might await the object that was proposed for deaccessioning merely due to its not fitting in with a new institutional focus for the collection. Such might be the fate of a French painting in a collection newly focused solely on American art. Fifty years ago, most curators would have worked hard in a case like this to find the French picture a good home in another museum’s predominantly French collection. These simple examples, together, would seem to indicate that deaccessioning, when carried out in an appropriate manner, is an integral part of enlightened museum professional practice. For years I’ve taught both my students and staff that deaccessioning is an acceptable and useful tool for defining and refining the scope and quality of collections that have grown, often with insufficient tending, over the years.

At this point, I’m sure you’ve noticed that I have not yet tied the concept of deaccessioning to sales of art. Why is that? Basically, that’s because of two particular things: 1) because no accredited museum is allowed to use the money that might be gained from selling a deaccessioned work of art to pay for anything at the museum, except for another piece of art; and 2) museum people are traditionally accumulators who want desperately to keep anything slightly good and, thus, deaccession only things that are broken or dreadful, with the exception of the very nice French painting that just doesn’t fit in anymore. And even then, traditional museum people have been more apt to reach out to their colleagues to trade or outright give the little painting away to an institution which will love it.

I’m painting quite a rosy picture here, a Rockwellian scene right off the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, of museums and their good staffs who’ve never seen an object without at least some redeeming features. Deaccessioning has somewhat of a loathsome character from that perspective, based on its advocacy of judgement and rejection. And traditionally it was thought that no real reward is apt to come from taking a deaccessioned piece to market – who really wants to buy a museum’s rejects? So unless forced, most museum people would not willingly walk any of their objects to the deaccessioning chopping block. Better to just tuck them out of sight in a dark corner in the collection vault under a tarp. Keep the institution’s board focused on the new acquisitions, not the handful of misfits in the shadows.

Norman Rockwell died in 1978, a time when my description of museum life was still basically accurate (and before Americans grew bored of wholesome scenes on its magazine covers). Museum life was not yet driven by ticket sales or grant requests, let alone spreadsheets, data analysis, and metrics. We were all art historians, poets, or culture buffs whose lives revolved around sharing cool stuff with people. Most of us never heard the fiscal wolf at the gate, even as our track lights drove our electric bills ever upward and our conservatively managed investment returns tracked downward.

As monetary stresses mounted at museums around the country in the early ‘80s, museum boards started appointing more and more corporate leaders with the idea that these left-brained business folk could show them how to improve museum practices by modeling them on their own business’s examples. In boardrooms around the country, museum trustees started talking about accountability, profit & loss, sustainability, bottom lines, and top-down management. Suddenly, an entire generation of scholarly, but not business savvy, museum directors was rendered obsolete and sent into retirement. Museum trustees then started looking for new directors who had MBAs in addition to art history degrees–people who could balance the books, maximize gains, minimize losses, and monetize everything that wasn’t nailed down. A knowledge of art history was great, but the key was to know how to deliver.

Not every museum was looking for exactly this type of director, but all museums were beginning to concede that running a museum had, over time, gotten more complicated in a financial and administrative sense. So, the ideal candidate for a directorship was no longer a traditionally trained art historian with virtually no management experience. Candidates with some blend of art history and business or management skills were soon dominating the corner offices throughout the field. Decisions were increasingly driven by practical, rather than aesthetic, thinking. Some of these decisions, like museum gift shops expanding dramatically, were fairly harmless. Others, like the Guggenheim’s decision to create an exhibition showcasing motorcycles, which was profitably sponsored by motorcycle manufacturers, were a bit more questionable. More to the point of this post is that this new kind of thinking even crept into the realm of museums’ collections. Several major museums, for example, initiated grand expansions using funds borrowed in sums that exceeded the endowments of these museums, which effectively put their collections in the position of being the collateral for the loan in an emergency. In another instance, a museum deaccessioned several masterworks and sold them to raise sufficient capital to buy 200 lesser works from a wealthy European collector who, coincidentally, would in turn agree to make a very generous donation. In yet another, more egregious instance, a museum decided to deaccession enough works to raise $25 million at auction because the institution had run up a $300,000 debt. These are the kinds of decisions that get made when financial considerations are prioritized over aesthetic considerations. When museum directors make these kinds of decisions, museum board members are complicit and should be held equally accountable. And it may not be too farfetched to suggest that, to some extent, the auction houses are complicit as well, especially when the works to be deaccessioned are top notch. Good lots from the nation’s museums contribute mightily to the auction houses’ profits.

What this all adds up to is this: major changes in the way museums operate today, coupled with the expanded role of the auction houses in the art market, make art increasingly easier to monetize for a variety of acceptable and unacceptable uses. Generally speaking, deaccessioning art so that it can be sold to fund the purchase of different art is acceptable if the new purchases are more in line with the museum’s mission than the works that were let go. Deaccessioning and then selling art from a museum’s collection to pay the utility bill, fix the roof, fund new programs, increase staff salaries, hire additional staff, or even payoff the museum’s credit line is basically unacceptable.

This recent tendency for some museums to sell items from their collections stems, in particular, from the recent relaxing of the rules governing the use of the proceeds from the sale of deaccessioned art by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) because of the economic impact of the COVID-19 virus on museums throughout the country. The relaxation of the rules for a two-year period was intended to help museums recover if they had exhausted all other means to support their financial survival. I read that as if a museum is in such dire financial straits that layoffs and budget cutting can’t save it, and PPP forgivable loans can’t save it, and extra fundraising efforts can’t save it, then the AAMD is going to look the other way if the museum deaccessions a few things and sends them off to market in a bid for survival. That sounds fair if those are, indeed, the circumstances. But if I were a trustee at a museum in this bind, I would want to get a little more down into the weeds. I would want to ask the director to address a number of simple questions, starting with the personnel costs in the annual operating budget. Could this particular museum get its work done with a smaller staff for a couple of years? I would want to make sure that we’d cut everything that we realistically could before we turned to deaccessioning and million-dollar auction sales to save our skins. I’m pretty sure that most of the trustees at these museums in the current spotlight asked questions like these and many others. Some of these trustees abruptly quit, I suspect because they didn’t like the answers they got to their questions. Others stayed on, likely believing in the explanations of their director about the correctness of his or her advice to use deaccessioning and subsequent auction sales to save the day.

At our museum, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, we are very fortunate. Let’s start with the fact that our trustees from the business community are deeply committed to our emphasis on, and protection of, our collection. As a board and staff, we all just get it. The furthest thing from our minds is thinking about ways to monetize the collection by selling it. We all view our collection as our core – it’s why we exist. During the pandemic we bought art for the collection, instead of deaccessioning art to balance the budget. We raised and earned more revenue and cut more expenses to offset a potential shortfall. We’ve always avoided overstaffing, so we were able to keep all staff on the payroll. Selling off things from the collection was never an option. It never even came up in discussion.

I make no judgement about what other museum’s are considering right now. History will render that. I’m writing this, instead, to shed a little light on the deaccessioning issues that we’re all reading about in the media, offering some seasoned, behind the scenes insight into the deaccessioning issue. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I have deaccessioned objects from our Museum from time to time, primarily because their authenticity was questionable or they would be a better fit at another institution. Last year, for example, we deaccessioned a wooden table from an historic Fort Wayne hotel and gave it to the History Center for their collection. In my 17 years here, I’ve probably deaccessioned about a dozen things, and the few of those forlorn objects that went to market made us less than $1,000. Now, our collection may not be as grand and filled with multi-million dollar, blue-chip treasures as the museums that have recently been in the news, but you can be sure that the treasures that we do have won’t be heading to the auction block.

One Reply to “In the News: Selling Art to Pay the Bills, the Practice of Deaccessioning”

  1. I like knowing that FWMoA is on the right side of art ownership for the community and that the Board is supporting that.

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