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May we suggest

Essays / July 30, 2018

Why Deaccessioning Is Never a Straight Story

To many, ”deaccessioning” means ”scandal.” But it’s a valuable process—and without decent public funding for museums, it’s bound to become more common
Signage at the National Gallery of Canada. Photo: Facebook. Signage at the National Gallery of Canada. Photo: Facebook.
Signage at the National Gallery of Canada. Photo: Facebook. Signage at the National Gallery of Canada. Photo: Facebook.

Following a national controversy about the deaccessioning of Marc Chagall’s Tour Eiffel, the work was returned to public view recently at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. There, following public petitions and call-in shows and behind-the-scenes board wranglings, it hangs on the second floor of the building, in the European Galleries, and will continue to do so until Winter 2019.

But many misunderstandings about deaccessioning and museum collections still remain both within and beyond Canada. Regarding Chagall, “the aftermath raised more questions” than it answered, says Lloyd DeWitt, chief curator at Virginia’s Chrysler Museum of Art. Formerly curator of European art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, where he oversaw a major deaccessioning effort, DeWitt is still curious about the role that the Department of Canadian Heritage might have played in the matter, and observes that “the role the Quebec government in restricting the sale and trade of cultural property [like the Jacques-Louis David] came as a surprise—anyone at Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board or the museum world would tell you that this was not normal procedure for Canada.”

If DeWitt’s vast expertise has left him with many questions, a largely uninformed public likely has many more. One of the main truths that did surface during the Chagall affair was how little most members of the Canadian public—and even those in the self-identified art public—know about deaccessioning. In the specialized art media, it is a term that jumps out from headlines, usually with negative connotations.

It’s time to look at some of the original and essential purposes of the deaccessioning process in museums, as well as look at the process by which it has become—in some cases—a suspect practice.

California museum consultant Martin Gammon’s new book Deaccessioning and Its Discontents, out this month from MIT, provides a brief history of the practice. When I reached out to him for comment on deaccessioning and museums today, he provided a nuanced view largely lacking in recent coverage of these controversies.

There is nothing inherently wrong about deaccessioning. It’s a practice that stretches back centuries.

“One of the chief findings of our book is that deaccessioning has been an essential part of museum practice since the dawn of the museum experiment in the 17th century,” Gammon says. “As curators came to manage the effect of multiple private collections congregating in a growing public collection, they often came to realize they needed to employ the power of deaccessions in order to weed and refine the collection over time to ensure it has coherence and is improving through these evolutionary stages of growth.”

Many galleries, even smaller Canadian ones, are tired of the word deaccession having a shadowy cast. “The word deaccession is stigmatized in the art world and contemporary museology more broadly,” says Ana Olson, director at the Glenhyrst Art Gallery near Brantford. “The hard fact is that deaccessioning is a business decision and, as such, should be handled in such practical terms. Deaccessioning is a fundamental business practice necessary for the responsible preservation and health of permanent collections.”

Even the Canadian Museums Association makes a clear case for weeding collections regularly. “There is nothing wrong inherently about deaccessioning!” the CMA’s guidelines state. “Deaccessioning is a necessary and appropriate tool in the collections management for any museum or gallery. Curatorially motivated disposal is an integral part of collection management and a way for a museum or gallery to refine its collection.”

Making deaccession decisions based on auction value, rather than curatorial importance, is like being thirsty in a lifeboat. The temptation to drink seawater is attractive, but it will hasten your demise. And there are a lot of museums at danger of drinking the seawater.

So if deaccessioning is an important part of museum practice going back to the 17th century, how did it get such a bad name in recent years? In short, the last three decades of the 20th century have put significantly more pressure on leading museums to deaccession works in order to simply stay solvent and afloat—these pressures including decreased government funding, a detrimental (in the U.S.) tax reform act and a booming art market. (These are also, of course, the decades which led to what Rosalind Krauss discussed, in a famous essay drawing upon Fredric Jameson, the cultural logic of the late capitalist museum.)

These forces have resulted in a situation where museums are more financially pressured than ever to sell off works for the wrong reasons—even though both the Canadian Museums Association and the Association of Art Museum Directors say that selling off artworks is only acceptable when the proceeds are used toward new acquisitions, not operations.

In 2018, auction prices and museum collections are intricately intertwined. The higher auction prices rise, the more museum collections are worth, and the more pressure there is for museums to sell off their collections. “The vast number of masterpieces in museum collections actually create the background conditions of artificial scarcity that prop up art market prices,” Gammon says. “But that also means that works long held in storage are now often worth vast sums of money. This creates a temptation to divest the museum of such objects to meet a fiduciary need. This is perfectly legitimate in the case of trading up for something that is important to the curatorial needs of the museum, but if employed to pay a debt or other operational need, this can seriously impoverish the institution over the long term.”

A case in point, says Gammon, is the Berkshire Museum’s recent sale of 13 works by Norman Rockwell at Sotheby’s. Given that the museum’s mission is around American art, Gammon contends the museum should have deaccessioned non-American artworks. But the auction value of the Rockwells, and the museum’s financial crisis and expansion hopes, convinced the museum board otherwise.

“Any [deaccession] selection based on auction value rather than curatorial importance is misguided, Gammon says. “It’s like being in a lifeboat. The temptation to drink seawater is attractive, but it will hasten your demise…There are a lot of museums at danger of drinking the seawater.”

Without adequate public funding, and with the application of other financial pressures, museums are ever more inclined to sell art to pay for maintenance bills and expansion initiatives.

With the dawn of the 21st century, the Internet has also put more pressure on art museums to deaccession. Provincial auction houses can now command a bigger audience of buyers from all over the world—and with more buyers competing for the same objects, museums have more potential buyers to sell to. This post-2000 period has also paralleled a spectacular growth in the Chinese art market.

A number of museum scholars have proposed that the relationship between museums and the marketplace has become even more problematic in recent years. Take the case of the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery selling Sekhemka, a c. 2400–2300 BC Egyptian statue, in 2014 at Christie’s. Toronto-based appraiser Andrea Zeifman, COO at A.H. Wilkens Auction and Appraisers, talked about this case in a March workshop on deaccessioning in Guelph. The Sekhemka case, Zeifman says, can be used to identify two things: one, the levelling of the field with the Internet, and two, the increasing ease with which a museum can contravene an ethical code and let the public down.

And yet there are, increasingly, public consequences for some museums when they deaccession. A couple of months after Sekhemka was sold at auction for a record 16 million pounds, the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery had its accreditation removed by Arts Council England.

More recently, in late May 2018, the Association of Art Museum Directors invoked sanctions against the Berkshire Museum, stating that the move “follows the decision made by [the] institution to use the proceeds from recent art sales to support operating budgets or expansion initiatives, a decision that violates one of the core principles of art museums.” As a result, no AAMD member museums can now lend works to the Berkshire, and vice versa.

“Deaccession decisions which are grounded in clear and defensible curatorial imperatives are usually the best course of action,” Gammon says. “We get into trouble when extraneous interests and ambitions, like fiduciary needs or building plans, seem to drive the deaccession decision instead.” And yet without adequate public funding, and with the application of other financial pressures, museums at home and abroad are ever more inclined to do just that: sell art to meet maintenance bills and expansion initiatives.

The combination of a booming art market and cuts (or flatlining) in government funding has created a new competitive market among museums not just for money, but for supports of any kind.

It is worth taking a moment to review a bit of the history of museums in the United States here, given that the US museums sector has had a huge influence on the Canadian museum sector’s policies, trends and approaches. (Though the Association of Art Museum Directors is headquartered in New York and Washington, Canada’s largest museums are members—and more than a few directors of large Canadian art museums are American to boot.) Looking at this history also provides a useful sketch of the pressures at hand for museums in general.

In 1965, with the establishment of the US National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities, there was a boom of new not-for-profit organizations that included art museums. In 1976, US museums benefited when the Congress enacted the Museum Services Act, which highlighted museum’s public service and stewardship role.

But in the financial sector, something else was happening: from the early 1960s to 1980s, the post-war economic boom saw a substantial increase in the collecting of art, decorative arts and antiques. Art as an investment and as an asset took a hold. This had a direct impact on the art museum and the perceived shift in its identity from being a guardian of public patrimony to a corporate entity. This shift was paralleled by an increasingly wholehearted embrace of the market by the museums.

It is interesting to consider the reaction of fierce opposition, for instance, in 1972 when the Metropolitan Museum decided to deaccession works from its collections to raise acquisition funds—a move which some may argue opened a contemporary debate on deaccessioning as practice. “Art museums are neither merchandise marts nor esthetic stock exchanges. They are repositories of precious records,” wrote John Canaday in the New York Times in 1972. “Nothing worth buying or accepting as a gift in the first place ever becomes less than part of the record of a phase of our culture, even if it also represents a curatorial idiocy. In spite of every exception, the rule is that selling from the collections is hazardous policy, and often unethical policy.”

More pressure was added in the 1980s: pressure to deaccession in order to obtain new artworks for museum collections. In 1981, the Reagan administration dramatically cut direct federal funding to the arts, and in 1986, a tax reform act abolished the deductibility of the current market value of donated objects. With the advent of the latter, art donors could only be tax-receipted for the amount originally paid for an artwork—and unsurprisingly, private art donations to museums started to fall short.

Action and policy from museum associations have prohibited certain kinds of deaccessioning from happening, but that doesn’t mean it has solved the problem.

The period of the 1980s and 1990s in particular saw American art museums homing in on their collection management and policies—and this also set up the stage for further deaccessioning activity. These collections policies created transparent grounds to recognize and properly deaccession any artwork that did not fit collections’ mandates. Thus these collection management and policy documents emerged as the dominant protocol and raison d’être for deaccessioning.

The combination of a booming art market, cuts in government funding and a setback in the tax reform together created a new competitive market not just for money, but for supports of any kind. Competition for private donor dollars—not to mention for volunteers, board members, audiences and grants—led to a reconfiguration of mission statements of museums, and this in turn offered another set of avenue for works that did not fit to be sold. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is a prime example of this repositioning, shifting to a focus on contemporary art in 1990, followed by MoMA and Guggenheim.

It is not surprising, then, that the 1980s and 1990s saw a wave of deaccessioning that raised issues of accountability. In 1991 and 1994, the Association of Art Museum Directors and American Association of Museums established stipulations restricting the use of monies raised through the deaccession of artworks—namely, that proceeds from deaccessioning could only be used to buy new artworks. But it is clear that these stipulations have not solved the multifaceted “problem” of deaccessioning, or the multiple financial and institutional pressures that feed it.

On March 15, 2018—just before the National Gallery of Canada’s Chagall controversy broke—the Ontario Association of Art Galleries, where I am executive director, held a workshop on “The Art of Deaccessioning” at the Art Gallery of Guelph.

No matter how good or ethical a deaccessioning process is, it can only offer partial insulation against many pressures facing museums in 2018.

At that workshop, Ottawa art collector and lawyer Glen Bloom presented the case of the Berkshire Museum, which, as has already been noted, was in serious financial trouble for many years, operating on a deficit and its endowment, unable to sustain operations. When it moved to deaccession,“The works included the important paintings by Norman Rockwell, who himself donated to the museum,” Bloom noted. “Most of the proceeds of sale were to be added to the museum’s endowment. But Rockwell’s three children along with members of the museum community commenced an action against the museum and added the Attorney General of Massachusetts as a party.” A few months later, that legal wrangling is now history—though the Berkshire recently vowed to deaccession another nine works as well.

Much more quietly, however, up at the Glenhyrst Art Gallery of Brant, a deaccessions process was also taking place during the same period as the Berkshire Museum drama. Bloom points to the fact that perhaps because of the deaccessioned objects’ lower monetary value, the Glenhyrst Art Gallery did not attract much public or media attention. But, he says, they followed the right process.

“We ensured that transparency, communication, and public consultation were an important part of the process, to the extent that we invited the gallery’s sizable membership and those living in Brantford, Brant Region, and Six Nations of the Grand River to actively participate by sitting on the selection committee itself or to observe meetings,” says Ana Olson, director at Glenhyrst Art Gallery. Steps of the deaccessioning process were advertised through monthly newsletters, social media posts and articles in regional newspapers.

Yet even as good a deaccessioning process is, it can only offer a partial insulation against pressures facing museums. As Robert R. James reflects in his book Museums in a Troubled World, “museums cannot continue to uphold an idealized and irrational notion of fiduciary trust as public funding stagnates or diminishes.”

Canada is not immune to these pressures either. “For those of us working in Canadian cultural institutions who manage ever-declining financial support and membership, coupled with inadequate physical space for growing collections that require perpetual conservation and preservation, deaccessioning is necessary,” Ana Olson of Glenhyrst says. “Our community understands that, at some point, our collection will suffer if we do not find ways to regulate its well-being.”

With a new provincial government voted to power in Ontario—the jurisdiction my organization oversees—there is a well-grounded fear of major cuts to the funding of museums and other cultural institutions. A federal election ahead in 2019 could also bring a change of power nationally. In view of this, will the issue of deaccessioning once again stoke wider public conversations in and around Canadian art galleries and museums? That’s a question that remains to be answered, and one many are watching closely—or should be.

Zainub Verjee

Zainub Verjee is a media artist, curator, writer, arts administrator and public intellectual. Her work has been shown internationally, including at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art and the Venice Biennale.