"Disposal of works of art from a museum's collection [deaccessioning] by sale, exchange, or otherwise, requires particularly rigorous examination and should be pursued with great caution," say guidelines from the national Association of Art Museum Directors.
Why? "A museum's collections, lovingly built up over many years with care, expertise, and dedication, are a public trust," wrote Seattle Art Museum director Mimi Gates in 1993, when she was at Yale Art Museum, in a strongly worded AAMD-circulated brief warning museums against selling art to cover any costs besides the care and feeding of the collections. Violations could result in, essentially, art-world exile—no art loans, no touring exhibitions.
Gates was influential in championing that standard, and now, I'm hoping she'll get out in front of another issue surrounding deaccessioning: secrecy. To make a bad deaccessioning decision is "to diminish the institution, to lessen its worth to the community, and to violate the public trust," Gates wrote. So why should they be undertaken secretly?
They shouldn't, says AAMD executive director Millicent Gaudieri: "The objects are in a public institution. The public has the right to know what's being deaccessioned, and the reason why." However, museums break that standard every day, a troubling fact considering that several—just recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art—have been caught red-handed and prevented from trying to unload serious valuables for questionable reasons.
The taboo against selling art for naked profit or to pay bills is well established, but there are still gray areas. For instance, curators sometimes lobby for sales to finance pet purchases. They argue they're selling lesser art to buy greater art, and maybe they are. But the AAMD fine print demands that museums take the long view by not deaccessioning according to "changes in fashion and taste."
Against this backdrop, Culturegrrl blogger and longtime mainstream cultural journalist Lee Rosenbaum made "a radically conservative proposal" on July 26: that museums post on their websites descriptions of each object slated for deaccessioning, with justification. The public benefit outweighs the legwork for the museum, she wrote.
I agree with her. In an attempt to look at collections as a regular part of my coverage in this paper, I've made several requests about the Seattle Art Museum's collection, but only received information about acquisitions. (The Henry hasn't gotten rid of anything since the 1960s; the Frye's collection is frozen for two years.) When I pressed the museum, I was told SAM doesn't publish a list of deaccessions, but that SAM attaches its name to its sales through the auction houses. Christie's reported no record of any SAM objects, even though the museum claims it sold there as recently as 2003. Sotheby's press office never even returned the call. And the auction houses can't provide answers about why the pieces were sold.
SAM shouldn't set up obstacles to crucial information about the public trust. Gates was on vacation last week, but when she gets back, I hope she'll agree, and that I'll be able to share information with you soon.[Note: This original version of this piece incorrectly named MoMA as an example of an institution that has been accused of trying to sell artworks for questionable reasons. The author sincerely regrets the error.]