It turns out all you have to do is ask. The Seattle Art Museum may be the only art museum in the country planning to voluntarily publish a list of its deaccessions—meaning the art it gets rid of—in its annual report, which will be posted on its website for all to see. And in another trusting decision, SAM also will make public the artworks it plans to sell before they go to auction.
SAM didn't have to do any of this. In a recent column titled "Sunshine, Please," I argued that decisions made about the museum's permanent collection, its public trust, should not be secret, and the Association of Art Museum Directors agreed with me. But most art museums share SAM's prior secretiveness. So SAM director Mimi Gates surprised me by nonchalantly announcing in a quick meeting across her desk last week that SAM would make the information public.
"It's never come up as an issue before," she told me. "I had to think it through, but it makes perfect sense."
Trying to find any other museums that publish deaccessions lists, I turned to blogger and veteran arts writer Lee Rosenbaum, whose writing on the subject earlier this year in part fueled my questions. She knew of only one museum that publishes a list: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, required to by the New York attorney general because of some sketchy deaccessions back in the 1970s.
Rosenbaum, blogger Tyler Green, and other reporters have scrutinized (thankfully) proposed (and unwise) deaccessions at the Met and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in recent months, and the dicey subject of when a deaccession should be allowed at all seems to be up for debate on the national stage, especially as curators are shaping and re-shaping collections in an era of museum growth and change. SAM, for instance, in the middle of a building expansion, has only recently inaugurated its American art department. That means there hasn't been a staff expert on board until now to really invent SAM's American collection. How much of the conversation about that invention should be public? Could be public?
I'd argue the cultural dialogue in the city would benefit from the knowledge of how the museum makes decisions, and maybe the museum would even benefit from having to explain itself (god knows I've gained professionally from having to do so). I asked SAM to consider Rosenbaum's proposition that museums publish lists of planned sales as well as past ones. Good arguments against selling a work should "be heard before the loss to the public patrimony is irrevocable," she wrote in an email. Makes sense to me.
Again, SAM agreed. Soon I'll see a list of the artworks SAM has slated for the auction block.
You won't read in these pages about every deaccession, because, most likely, few will be of interest. But over time, with this unprecedented access, both you and I should gain a sharper view of the collection and an understanding of the museum's thought process that, I hope, goes beyond PR and into the particulars of art.
UPDATE: Seattle art museum will keep pre-auction sales secret! Read Jen Graves's September 22 follow-up.