Jackson Pollock's Mural, which cash-strapped University of Iowa administrators considered selling last year.
Last month two pretty shocking things happened in the museum world. One, the nation's best contemporary art museum considered subsuming itself in another museum but did not seriously or publicly consider selling art to keep itself afloat. Two, a far more obscure museum did sell two works of art in order to keep its lights on—and was publicly blacklisted by the museum community.
These are not isolated cases. Universities and libraries have tried (some successfully) to sell off artworks to square up their balance sheets. Other museums, like the Detroit Institute of Arts, are holding on to their van Goghs despite facing tens of millions of dollars in shortfalls. And it seems there is news every day about another museum's financial woes in this economy: today's exposed victim is the Denver Art Museum.
To people outside the art world, the math can seem obvious: If museums are sitting on all this valuable art, why don't they sell some of it to pay the bills?
That, as you can imagine, makes many art people scream.
Things tend to devolve quickly into shouting matches.
But do they have to? Is compromise possible? Can museums ever sell works of art except for the purpose of collecting more art (the current rule)? Where did that rule come from? And who is the best authority for determining whether sales that do fund other art purchases are in fact justified?
Into this controversy waded Jori Finkel, a writer from Los Angeles for the New York Times, whose story about the history, philosophy, and controversy of deaccessioning—"Whose Rules About Art Sales Are These, Anyway?"—appeared on December 28.
Now, in a taped phone interview, she takes an even broader look, talking about what didn't make it into her story and what her greater goals were in writing the piece.
She also directs attention to voices outside the usual suspects (which are also worth checking out for background here, here, and here): Michael O'Hare's public policy paper "Capitalizing Art Museum Collections: Awkward for Museums but Good for Art and Society," and Adrian Ellis's 2004 essay for The Art Newspaper, "A New Approach to the Deaccessioning Issue."
Once you start thinking about it, you can't stop. And the current rule seems both incomplete and overly restrictive. Surely there's an opportunity here for reasoned reform.
Editor's note: One blogger central to the conversation about deaccessioning at the National Academy and elsewhere was inadvertently left out of this conversation. Check out the work of Lee Rosenbaum (Culturegrrl) here.