Deaccessioning in the age of covid: US museums face new criticism

As a growing number of masterpieces head to auction in the US, critics question whether deaccessioning is the right approach for museums to take in the wake of the pandemic. So, what is all the fuss about? 

It’s not uncommon for museums to periodically sell artworks from their collections in the UK. In general terms, an artwork can be deaccessioned from a collection if it is out of place, overrepresented, or considered poor quality. However, deaccessioning can be subject to a museum’s own rules and the terms upon which items were acquired. Public museums in the US, however, are generally only permitted to use the proceeds for additional art purchases. 

In April 2020 the US Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) relaxed these rules around deaccessioning due to the unprecedented spread of coronavirus. AAMD have since allowed museums to sell works to “support the direct care” of collections for the next two years.  

This decision sparked a wave of sales in the following months; Syracuse’s Everson Museum sold Jackson Pollock’s (1912-1956) ‘Red Composition’ for US$13 million (£10.1 million) with fees at Christie’s, and the Brooklyn Museum deaccessioned Lucas Cranach the Elder’s (c.1472-1553) ‘Lucretia’, which had been displayed in the museum since 1921, achieving US$5.1 million (£3.9 million) with fees at Christie’s. 

Yet recently the association has condemned the deaccession plans of several museums for their “non-collection-specific goals”. No specific museums were mentioned in the statement, although the Brooklyn Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) have both received public scrutiny.  

I recognise that many of our institutions have long-term needs—or ambitious goals—that could be supported, in part, by taking advantage of these resolutions to sell art,” stated Brent Benjamin, president of the AAMD board of trustees. 

But however serious those long-term needs or meritorious those goals, the current position of AAMD is that the funds for those must not come from the sale of deaccessioned art.” 

In October the BMA had planned to raise US$65 million (£50.4 million) from deaccessioning works by Bryce Marden, Clyfford Still (1904-1980), and Andy Warhol (1928-1987). The funds were to go towards collection care, as well as raising staff salaries, collecting works by women and BAME artists, inclusion plans, and making admission free for special exhibitions.  

Museums are not mausoleums or treasure houses, they are living organisms, oriented to the present as well as the past, and that is where the fundamental disagreement lies,” explained Asma Naeem and Katy Siegel, curators at the BMA. 

Art critics and former AAMD trustees felt the museum’s plan manipulated the new AAMD guidelines and represented a conflict of interest. This halted the anticipated sale at Sotheby’s just hours before it began on 28 October 2020. “I am gratified to learn that the Baltimore Museum of Art has decided to reverse course,” responded Benjamin. “As we have said consistently, our April 2020 resolutions were not intended to address needs beyond current, pandemic-related financial challenges.” 

Deaccessioning can invigorate often static museum spaces. But given the widespread outpouring of criticism, US museums will seemingly have to navigate the complex process of deaccessioning under growing public scrutiny in the post-pandemic world. 

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