“Deaccessioning” – that is, selling off artwork for any purpose other than to acquire more artwork – is the “cardinal sin” of the museum world. 

Before the pandemic, this was official policy of The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), the professional group that “… serves as the industry’s referee and moral watchdog.”  For the last decade or so, the AAMD has enforced this proscription from time to time with a heavy hand. It slapped costly monetary sanctions on violators. Member institutions did their part as well; they “shunned” the renegades – for instance – by denying them the usual courtesies of inter-museum artwork loans. A few years ago, we reported on a notorious deaccessioning tale as it played out over time: the ugly battle involving the Berkshire Museum nestled in the scenic mountains of the Massachusetts countryside. The End Of The Berkshire Museum Saga: Everyone Loses (May 2, 2018); see also Association of Art Museum Directors Sanctions Berkshire Museum, La Salle University Art Museum Over Art Sales (May 25, 2018) Andrew Russeth, ArtNews

But behind this curtain of orthodoxy lay decades of deaccessioning examples that are conveniently minimized or ignored whenever this controversial issue pops up into the news either within the cocoon of the art world or more generally in the major national media. “Deaccessioning is hardly new in the art world, … and neither are the debates surrounding it.” See The Most Controversial U.S. Museum Deaccessions: Why do Institutions Sell Art? (October 26, 2020) Angelica Villa, ArtNews.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck our shores, a period of uneasy truce began. Expecting – correctly – that the museum world would be especially disrupted by the lockdown orders and live-attendance restrictions, the AAMD announced a two-year moratorium on enforcement of its deaccessioning rules. In Substantial Shift, Museum Industry Group Pushes Directors to Break the Rules to Survive (April 16, 2020) Andrew Russeth, ArtNews.

As the months passed, that’s exactly what happened.  Trying to survive, more museums than expected (at least by the museum directors’ professional group and hard line allies) were dipping their toes into these waters. In Museums & Deaccessioning In COVID-19 (October 23, 2020), we posted a story on that development highlighting the apparently smooth and unopposed (imminent) move by The Brooklyn Museum to auction at Christie’s twelve of its holdings. “Other American museums,” we added, “are beginning a similar process of evaluating their collections for possible deaccessioning.”  

But in the brief window between our drafting of that post and its publication on this blog, the ceasefire in the art world crumbled spectacularly. We were obliged, just 24 hours later, to add this update to our October 23rd blog post: “Not everyone is on board with these deaccessioning decisions; see Donors rescind $50 million in gifts over Baltimore museum’s planned sale of Warhol painting, (October 24, 2020) Peggy McGlone, The Washington Post.” 

The rapid-fire events of the next several days are aptly summed up in this headline: Two Museums Tried to Sell Art. Only One Caught Grief About it. (October 30, 2020) Hilarie M. Sheets, The New York Times

       Brooklyn and Baltimore Museums 

Now, several months after our October 2020 post about the deaccessioning truce falling apart, we pick up this reporting again. The combatants continue to skirmish with no clear resolution in sight.  See As Museums Push to Sell Art, Competing Ideas About Deaccessioning Are Playing Out in Public (February 8, 2021) Andrew Russeth, ArtNews. See also Selling Art to Pay the Bills Divides the Nation’s Museum Directors (March 19, 2021), Robin Pogrebin & Zachary Small, The New York Times [“Bitter debate has ensued as museum leaders around the country discuss whether to permanently embrace a pandemic-spurred policy that allows the sale of art to cover some operating costs.”]

There’s the story itself: that is, the divergent treatment of the two museums – Brooklyn and Baltimore – most prominently featured in it. This continues to be a significant issue for museums, the art world and art lovers, and philanthropists.

Why was the Brooklyn Museum permitted to go forward with its scheduled Christie’s auction in October 2020 “without incident,” and with the apparent blessing of the American Association of Museum Directors? It was a game-changing event for this institution that had faced financial challenges even before the pandemic crisis struck. Just a single item in the catalogue fetched some $75-million. 

And why, in that same tiny window of time, did the much-better financed Baltimore Museum face such a furious backlash that it abruptly “paused” its imminent auction and later abandoned it entirely. See US Association of Art Museum Directors sends a warning note to its members on deaccessioning (October 27, 2020) Nancy Kenney, the artnewspaper.com and After Canceling Controversial Deaccessioning, Baltimore Museum Receives Over $1M for Equity Initiative (February 25, 2021), Valentina Du Liscia, hyperallergenic.com.  A curious fact in the Baltimore battle is that many of the opponents of the October 2020 auction had watched this same institution deaccession holdings in 2018 and 2019 with barely a peep. 

       On Not Returning to “Normal”

Beyond the news value of these current deaccession battles, we call attention to a broader question that’s popped up over and over again in the last twelve traumatic months. Should we – any or all of us – go back to “normal” when all the restrictions are lifted and the pandemic danger subsides?

Should the museum world go back to business as usual? Was the pre-pandemic “normal” for this sector sustainable in any event? Many arts institutions around the nation struggle regularly to keep afloat. And what is the relevance to this legitimate and long-overdue debate of the open secret that many museums receive art donations that never were (or are not now) relevant to their mission? And what about these and other holdings that never see the light of day anyway being “deaccessioned” from time to time without any notice or uproar?

More importantly, though, should the arts community want to support reinstating policies and practices that no one seriously at this point disputes reek of institutional bias against minority achievement and viewpoints? The “deaccessioning” debate was already evolving before the pandemic; it was developing amidst the emerging society-wide discussions of economic inequality, white privilege, racial and social justice, and underrepresentation of minority achievements and perspectives. See, for example, In defence of progressive deaccessioning (October 26, 2020) Glenn Adamson, apollo-magazine.com [explaining a policy of “selling off high-value art, and putting the realised funds towards works by under-represented artists”] 

Then came the 2020 events in the #blacklivesmatter movement, underlining the urgency of confronting institutional inequality and bias. As curators Asma Naeem and Katy Seigel of the Baltimore Museum shot back at critics of their planned auction in an op-ed in Art News: “Museums are not mausoleums or treasure houses, they are living organisms, oriented to the present as well as the past.” Baltimore Museum of Art curators respond to deaccessioning criticism (October 13, 2020) [“Equality and diversity make history fairer, more accurate and more meaningful in the present”].


The debate on the near- and long-term future of the AAMD’s (eased) pandemic deaccessioning rules continues; it has “grown heated in recent weeks, pitting museum against museum, and forcing the association … to postpone talks about extending the change indefinitely.” 

There is significant support for continuing the flexibility post-pandemic; see, for example, To Keep the Industry Alive, the AAMD Should Permanently Give Museums Freer Rein to Sell Work (April 27, 2020), Donn Zaretsky, Esq., Art News.

Then, again, Thomas Campbell, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, more recently in ArtNews warns: “Deaccessioning will be like crack cocaine to the addict—a rapid hit, that becomes a dependency.” 

           — Linda J. Rosenthal, J.D., FPLG Information & Research Director 


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