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My 2 Cents On Museum Deaccessions

March 30, 2018


The decisions by the Berkshire Museum and La Salle University to sell off most of their major works of art for financial reasons has caused a real uproar. While I am a firm believer that museums should not sell their works to ‘pay the bills’, I do feel that many museums need to ‘clean house’.  There are so many wonderful works in museum storage areas that will never see the light of day. So, why not do something so people can see and enjoy them? I would love to know when the last time Auguste Bonheur’s Environs of Fontainebleau: Woodland and Cattle (a 105 x 157 inch painting) was on display at the Met?  Or, when they plan on putting it on display? They do not even have a color photo of the painting on their site!  Come on, give us a little color.

In addition, what about all the really bad paintings (fakes, forgeries, etc.) in museum collections that should be deaccessioned … or, better yet, destroyed — since we really do not need them back on the market! I have personally walked into museums and seen fakes hanging on the walls … and it wasn’t because they were having an exhibition of fakes and forgeries.  When you know or even suspect a work has authenticity issues, why display it as an authentic work by the artist?  This is not a good thing for any artist’s reputation or market.

Here is an interesting thought – someone in the U.S. should open a museum dedicated to fakes and forgeries.  Then all the other museums can donate their ‘bad’ works.  I am sure there would be a steady flow of visitors too!



Over the past few months, there have been numerous articles about the decisions made by the Berkshire Museum and La Salle University to sell many of their major works of art for financial reasons.  Recently, Michael O’Hare (professor of public policy at the Goldman School at UC Berkeley) gave some food for thought on donor fears, museum excess and how an institution could offer free admission in his article for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Among the terrors touted by the anti-deaccession crowd (“deaccessioning,” the formal step that removes a work from the collection so it may be sold or otherwise disposed of, is how the art world usually refers to selling works) is that no one would ever give a painting to a museum again, because the donor would be afraid the gift would someday be sold. That might be true for any one museum under current rules, but if the rules changed, what would donors do with their collections instead?

One might also ask a museum director: How much more art that you can’t afford to conserve, and have no space to display, do you really want?

West Coast museums typically don’t have collections as enormous as the eastern museums that got into the game a half century earlier; the San Francisco museums are probably not in a position to let us in free with a 1 percent selling binge. But they still have warehouses of art that are not creating any cultural value now and could be sold, especially to regional museums and collectors who would show it. They could free up funds for more space to show what they have, and more curators and educators to amplify the value of the visitors’ experience.

I, for one, am in agreement with the idea of selling off works that just take up space … but others still take a harder line.

Martin Gammon, an advisor to museums and private collectors on bequests and collection management, gave his thoughts on the matter in his article The mirage of riches in museums’ vaults:

The recent debate over deaccessioning by the Berkshire Museum in Massachusetts has led some to conjecture that such sales might easily solve the scourge of museum admission fees. Michael O’Hare, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, boldly asserted in the San Francisco Chronicle that museums “should sell works in storage to avoid raising admission fees”. O’Hare insists that there is an enormous windfall residing in the 90% of collections at most museums that languish in storage and which could be readily disposed of or redeployed. “I have estimated, by triangulation from a couple of cases in which museums did value their collections, the monetary value of the collection of one of my favourite museums, the Art Institute of Chicago [AIC]: it’s around $35bn,” he says.

O’Hare asserts that this valuation came about through a “triangulation” from the competing appraisals of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection during bankruptcy proceedings and an anonymous valuation of the holdings at the Berkeley Art Museum. O’Hare goes on to suggest that, given this enormous windfall, selling the mere bottom 1% of the AIC’s collection would generate an unencumbered cash infusion of around $350m in endowment funds, which could then pay for free admission to the institution in perpetuity on interest payments alone.

Gammon then explores some of the potential flaws in O’Hare’s thinking … among them: ‘flooding the market’, difficulties coming up with accurate valuations (which was beautifully illustrated in the Detroit Institute of Arts’ recent bankruptcy proceedings) and the costs to the museum in terms of time, research, etc.

I also agree with some of Gammon’s thoughts  … especially, that dumping a ton of work on the market at one time would, or could, trigger a catastrophic collapse of the markets… .  However, as I stated earlier, selling off works that will never be shown, or are just downright bad (in terms of quality, condition, etc.), is a wise thing for institutions to consider and do … even if it takes them many years to get it done.   In addition, there are many museums who have works in their collection that just do not fit their mission.  A museum focusing on American art should be able to easily sell off European works that will just sit in storage and never be shown.  We all know that museums deaccession works from time to time, so why not get rid of the ‘junk’ or things that just do not fit?  Then take that money and do something that will benefit the collection and the museum’s partons/visitors.

Here is another interesting thought for museums with collections where only a tiny fraction will ever be on display.  Why not open a branch in another location?  I am sure institutions like the Met or Art Institute of Chicago have more than enough outstanding/important ‘extra works’ to open a pretty impressive second, or even third, locations.

Anyway, I am sure this debate will continue for a long time.