In my column this week, I praised the Seattle Art Museum for agreeing to an unprecedented level of public transparency concerning its decisions about selling artworks. I reported, "Soon I'll see a list of the artworks SAM has slated for the auction block."


But evidently that was not to be. SAM director Mimi Gates, in a meeting last Tuesday, said the museum would be taking the unusually open step of starting to publish a list of its deaccessions (artworks from the permanent collection sold or otherwise disposed of) in its annual report. I reported this on the Slog, which generated a great discussion, including comments from David A. Ross, former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

In my Slog post that day, I praised the museum for taking this step. This makes SAM the only museum in the country, as far as I know, that voluntarily will publish a list of its deaccessions. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is compelled to do so by the New York State Attorney General, after a pattern in the 1970s—that some say continues today—of getting rid of art, or trying to, for questionable reasons.)

But I also pressed the point that I'd written about previously, that was proposed by Culturegrrl blogger Lee Rosenbaum. She argued that museums should publish a list of their planned deaccessions so that the public has a chance to take a gander before the sales are final, instead of after, when the deeds are already done.

I wrote SAM director Mimi Gates an email on Thursday asking her opinion of this. She wrote back a response that seemed to say, " we're the experts, trust us, and we'll report to you about it afterward." " Transparency is important," she wrote. "Listing works, if any, that have been exchanged or sold in our annual report allows for transparency."

Since she didn't engage the question directly, I sent a reply asking for clarification, again sent through a museum spokeswoman. By this point, and it was after 5 pm, the spokeswoman said Gates was no longer available to respond. Instead, the spokeswoman, Cara Egan, called me to elucidate the museum's intentions.

Artworks still in the museum's vetting process for deaccessions would be off-limits for public consumption, but works already vetted and waiting to go to auction would be fair game for reporting, Egan said. Egan would plan a meeting with me and a curator (she asked that I not disclose which curator, or the curator's department, until after the meeting) in which the curator would share the list of works waiting to go to auction, as well as works that had recently been sold from that department's collection, where the current deaccessions were coming from.

Unfortunately, Egan told me last night that she'd talked out of turn, and that SAM director Gates will not, in fact, allow the works waiting to be shipped to auction houses to become public knowledge. Only works that have already been sold can be reported publicly.

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All of this should not overshadow the museum's welcome decision to publish deaccessions in its annual report—a decision that makes it possible to publicly observe and assess, for the first time in history, the museum's deaccessioning habits, even if it's after the fact. (I'm still waiting to hear when the next report comes out.)

But I felt it necessary to explain why half of my column this week is, basically, null and void.