Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education
Access to the vault, or museum storage, while given only to select staff, is at the forefront of questions we receive from the public. Recently, various museums and cultural institutions announced their intention to sell off “blue-chip” artworks from their vaults to fund payroll, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) initiatives, and purchase artworks by minorities in the wake of financial and social pressures from COVID-19 and cultural movements. Many people, both inside and outside the museum world, questioned if this practice was legal and, if so, appropriate. Should a famous painting from a well-known museum be auctioned and potentially bought by a private collector, hidden from public view for years, to fund salaries or the purchasing of emerging artists? What precedent does that set for other works held in trust by cultural institutions?
The practice of accessioning and deaccessioning, adding or removing, items from a collection is a formal, legal act with strict guidelines dictated by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). The governing body for museums, galleries, libraries, and archives across the country, AAM has standards that all accredited museums must follow, including a collection plan and management policy. (Accreditation, a process that museums can choose to undergo every 10 years, is a rigorous examination of the practices and procedures of the museum and its staff). While separate processes, the two are linked. Unaccredited museums are not held to similar standards, but their status means many museums won’t loan them items because of it, whether for traveling exhibits or in-house shows. Though not every museum actively purchases new objects for their collection, these policies and procedures ensure the museum, or other institution, is properly handling, storing, exhibiting, preserving, and conserving the objects they hold.
While every museum has their own preferred system, they all follow a similar procedure for accessions, or acquiring new objects into the collection. The president and head curators are the main decision-makers in accessioning and deaccessioning. Their role, in fact, is what plays into many questioning the ethics of selling art to fund payroll when certain employees are instrumental in that decision: sell art or get paid. A collections committee decides on purchasing if a work is above a set figure (say $20,000) and also assists curators in choosing objects and formulating a collections plan. Presidents and curators don’t purchase just anything—they conform to the mission of the museum. For example, FWMoA has deaccessioned works accepted by past presidents who collected objects according to a different collection mission. Unless it is a European or Asian artist with a fundamental influence on American art, think Japanese woodblock prints and Impressionism, those artworks would be up for disposal via auction or donation. Museums can acquire new works at any time through purchase (budget permitting) or donation. Once accepted, objects receive an accession number that allows curatorial staff to locate them, whether in the vault or on display (the acquisition number is usually the last line on object labels). The object is then subject to remain for X amount of time, for example, 5 years, before it can even be considered for deaccessioning.
Why would a museum want to part with a work of art or historical object? Say a contemporary American art museum receives a large donation, or gift, from a collector, with 95% of the gifted pieces fitting the collecting mission, as mentioned earlier. The museum accepts the gift because the majority meets the collecting philosophy with the knowledge that they can deaccession the 5% following the moratorium. In officially removing an item from the listed holdings each institution follows its own method and workflow but are all held to two processing steps: deaccession and disposal. To deaccession, the institution must have a justification: it doesn’t fit the collecting philosophy; it’s being sold to refine/improve the collection as reviewed by the board and/or collections committee; irreparable damage; duplicate; found to be stolen or illegally imported/acquired; fraudulent replica; lacks value for exhibition or study; or found to be of poor quality. Once the “why” is determined, the group must then decide how to dispose of the work.
In this case, we don’t mean disposal as “throwing away” but in terms of transfer of ownership to another institution, reallocation to educational or research programs, repatriation if stolen, returned to the donor if a loan, or sent to private or public sale. If a work is truly beyond conservation, a fake, or a forgery then it can be physically destroyed. So long as a museum follows all the legal and ethical considerations properly then they are free to manage their collection as they see fit.
In part because of the financial straits many museums found themselves in during COVID, AAM and other, international committees like the International Council on Museums (ICOM) lessened the protocols on deaccessioning objects. Call for repatriation of objects, like artwork looted by the Nazis during World War II, also influenced large and small institutions alike to take a microscopic look at their collections and carefully consider their collection policies.
To return to our first question, should “famous” works of art be deaccessioned? They certainly can be though the institutions removing the items should take steps in their disposal methods to ensure the works are bought by fellow public institutions (or donors willing to buy them on their behalf) so that they don’t disappear into private collections. No one wants museums, least of all those in the field, to view their objects as sellable pieces with retail value should they mismanage funds and endowments. With the pandemic, however, many museums who rely heavily on admission to meet their bottom line were left in dire straits. What this says to the community at large is that now museums need to consider both their financial and collection plans. Are they prepared to weather another 6-week shutdown? Or longer? Are they willing to allocate specific funds to payroll and raise awareness about minority and/or new artists? More than just adding and removing objects, accessioning, and deaccessioning controls a museum’s collection philosophy and mission, ensuring that the works we hold in trust are managed well.
Check out what is new at FWMoA by looking for the “Recent Acquisition” labels near objects on display.