Museums sell art in economic crisis

Earlier today, on this blog, a “happy” item about one important work of art, now no longer owned by a private collector and invisible for the public, but bought (in this case with private subsidies) for people to see it in a museum.

Now, news about many works of art sold by museums, maybe to disappear for a long time, languishing in safes. From The Art Newspaper:

Robbing Peter to pay… who?

Deaccessioning rules have a strange interpretation of what constitutes the public interest

By Donn Zaretsky

As Lindsay Pollock reports in the July/August issue and on, about a third of the works included in Christie’s 20 May sale in New York were from US museums.

One of those museums was the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey, which, in March of this year, issued a very strange announcement. It revealed that, having “been deeply affected by the current financial crisis”, it was putting into place a “Financial Security Plan”, one part of which was the sale of more than 50 works from the collection, including an important 1951 drawing by Jackson Pollock.

What was strange about the announcement was how the proposed deaccessioning was supposed to fit into the “Financial Security Plan”. Under professional standards promulgated by the American Association of Museum Directors (AAMD) and the Association of American Museums (AAM), US museums can deaccession only to buy more work—and Montclair was quick to point out at every turn that they fully intended to comply with that rule. But if the sales proceeds were to be used to buy more work—simply replacing one set of objects with another—how could that possibly help make the museum more financially secure? …

In an article for the Wall Street Journal, critic James Panero seemed to have solved the mystery: the works were being sold to satisfy the requirements of the museum’s bonds. …

But why couldn’t the museum be honest about the reasons for the sale? Why not just say “we have to sell some work in order to satisfy our bond covenants”? Why go through the charade of emphasising that the proceeds will be “used solely to purchase works of art in the future”? …

Why is Montclair selling 50 works, including an important Pollock? (The director of the museum downplayed the sale by pointing out that “you can take a bus and be in [New York City] in 20 minutes, where you can see lots of work by Pollock.”)

Yeah right … OTHER work by Pollock. And if you’re a banking millionaire, bailed out by Jane and Joe Taxpayer, doing well, economic crisis or no crisis, you can go to Europe by private plane and see even more Pollocks … Yeah right.

As also reported in this issue, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art sold a cache of old master paintings at Sotheby’s on June 4 and the Orange County Museum of Art recently sold off a big part of its California impressionist collection. Why is it perfectly acceptable for museums to “raid the collections placed in trust” with them in this way?

And second, if the goal really is to make sure works held in the public trust stay there, then there’s a much simpler solution: require that museums sell only to other museums. (In fact, museum consultant Adrian Ellis made something close to just such a proposal in The Art Newspaper back in 2004.) If the Montclair Art Museum sold its Pollock to, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art—just a 20 minute bus ride away!—it’s hard to see how “the public” would be hurt. The work would still remain “accessible to present and future generations”.

In fact, however, the best of the Lacma works were bought by a London dealer, and all 18 Orange County works went to a single unnamed private collector. Similarly, most of the Montclair works are ending up in private hands, no longer part of the “public trust.”

11 thoughts on “Museums sell art in economic crisis

  1. Most museums are financially-struggling private non-profits and cannot survive on goodwill alone. If folks are so concerned about art being sold, maybe they should support their neighborhood museum with a membership and annual donation rather than just complaining.


  2. Most museums are financially-strapped non-profits that cannot survive on good intentions alone. If folks are so concerned about art being sold, why don’t they support their local museums with at least membership purchases and a modest annual donation?


  3. Hi Elizabeth Romanaux, personally I am a member of various museums. What is a “modest” annual donation differs greatly for a bank CEO who just received a fat bonus after bank bailout by the taxpayers, and a worker just laid off by General Motors. So, it is best to keep museums open for everyone by progressive taxation.


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  5. On “ School District of Philadelphia considers selling off artwork to cut deficit ”

    An adaption of Emily Dickinson’s poem Before I got my eye put out (circa 1862) in honor of the working people of Philadelphia and Detroit:

    Before I got my art sold off,
    I liked as well to see
    As other creatures that have eyes,
    And know no other way.

    But were it told to me, to-day,
    That I might have Modigliani
    For mine, I tell you that my heart
    Would split, for size of me.

    The Matisse’s, mine –
    The Mannerists, mine –
    All Eakins – stintless Surrealists
    As much of Modernism as I could take
    Between my finite eyes

    The motions of Brueghel’s birds
    The Cubist’s jointed road
    For mine to look at when I liked,
    The news would strike me dead!

    So, “safer”, guess, with just my art
    Upon the auction block
    Where billionaires put their eyes,
    Incautious – of the working class.

    Randy R
    8 November 2013


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