When Museums Sell Art

In the past month or so there has been a series of articles in the New York Times about the financial troubles of art museums. Some major catastrophes seem to have been averted for the immediate future, but the primary issue of concern is the practice of deaccessioning artwork. This is nothing new, but considering the times, it is likely to become more common. In the practice of deaccessioning, artwork may sold to ease financial difficulties or it may be sold for the purpose or raising funds to purchase other artworks. Deaccessioning is a controversial practice on several angles, particularly when works of art are sold for a reason less than the life-or-death of the institution.

When works are sold for the purpose of purchasing another–in theory, an artwork with a higher culture value–the decision is subject to the perspective of the times. How many times has an object been disregarding in one period, when its style is unfashionable, but is later understood to be particularly significant? It is something that happens with a certain frequency in the history of art.

When works are sold for the purpose of raising funds it brings into question the function of the museum. Museums, for good or bad, are increasingly more like commercial or corporate entities. American museums, unlike those in some other countries, typically charge a substantial entrance fee. Prominent museums may have trusts and other sources of relatively stable income. Of course, museums are under pressure from both external and internal factors to draw more visitors, and hence, ticket fees. Is the proper purpose of the museum, then, a source of revenue or that of a permanent guardian of cultural patrimony?

Regardless, there are several reason why anyone who cares about art and cultural heritage should be concerned about this practice. One, if the artwork is sold into a private collection, the public, in all likelihood loses access to it. Art is culture and it belongs to the world, particularly when it has reached the stature of a museum piece. It should be available for public access, even if it is not always on view.

Two, museums sometimes acquire work by donation. When artwork is donated to a museum, the probable intent was something akin to a public gift. (Okay, some people do it for the tax benefit). Some museum collections are enhanced by gifts given by the artist personally (who can only claim the actual cost of the materials for tax purposes). Artists may be less likely to donate their work, especially to smaller regional institutions, if the museum may later sell it off. Some donors, collectors or artists, may be able to circumvent to possibility of a later sale of the work by making a permanent loan, rather than a donation. Of course there is likely to be no tax benefit from such a loan.

Third, the deaccessioning of artwork seems to be simply counter to the role that museums are perceived to have in this society. The general belief is that museums hold a charitable position in society and exist for the benefit of society. Museums have a particularly important position in maintaining the cultural patrimony of the world. When bits are sold off, the institution itself is diminished…and historical communication of art becomes increasingly available only for the few.


Museums Look Inward for Their Own Bailouts

Whose Rules Are These, Anyway?

Branded a Pariah, the National Academy Is Struggling to Survive

National Academy Sells Two Hudson River School Paintings to Bolster It’s Finances

UPDATE:  January 27, 2009

The NY Times reports that Brandeis University will close the Rose Museum and sell the art collection.  The purpose?  To improve the university’s financial situation.  The museum contains numerous contemporary works including those of Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Mathew Barney, Cindy Sherman, Helen Frankenthaler, Kiki Smith and others.

Read the Times article here.

The Rose Art Museum

At the time of this posting, neither the university or the museum has published a statement on its website about the closing.


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3 Responses to “When Museums Sell Art”

  1. kingleor Says:

    A petition (made by Brandeis alumni) in opposition to the Rose Art Museum’s closing is circulating here:

  2. Jennifer Unruh Says:

    From my understanding, neither. According to the articles cited and others, the decision is made by the museum Director and/or the Board of Trustees. The sale piece is probably chosen on a formula of least vistor interest and highest sale value…

  3. okathleen Says:

    And who decides the sale, the Curator or the visitor? Who has the power..


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