Deaccession Continues to Cause Controversy in the Art World

Written By: Eleanor Pratt 

A view of an empty The Metropolitan Museum of Art that closed amid Covid-19 Pandemic amid Coronavirus Outbreak spread across the United States on March 20, 2020 in New York City. The World Health Organization declared coronavirus (COVID-19) a global pandemic on March 11th. (Photo by John Nacion/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Deaccession is a highly controversial concept throughout the art world and has been the subject of a fair amount of scrutiny in recent years. What art to sell is a particularly difficult subject, as everyone has a different idea of what is important enough to stay in a museum. Several museums have been under scrutiny in the past few weeks for their deaccession decisions. 

There are three schools of thought when it comes to deaccession. According to the journal, The Museum Scholar, conservatives believe that art should never be removed from a museum’s collection because this would violate the public’s trust. Moderates acknowledge that deaccession has some value but fully believe that the money gained from sales should only go to buying more art. Finally, the liberal point of view believes that museums should be able to sell art as they see fit, with no regulations or stipulations. 

While many museums have taken part in deaccession over the years, there has been an uptick recently due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has swept the globe. Museums that rely heavily on revenue from gallery visitors have lost an incredible amount of money due to quarantine rules and regulations and must find a way to care for their collections. 

CNBC reports that The Metropolitan Museum of Art has projected that it will lose $150 million in revenue through June 2021, and popular museums in places like Vienna and Amsterdam are losing anywhere from $168,700 to $1,012,000 per week.

Museums cannot simply sell art whenever they wish to, as there are guidelines put in place by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). Normally, works sold are second tier or simply redundant and do not serve the museum’s interests anymore. Recently, AAMD has relaxed many of its rules surrounding deaccession in an effort to help with the strain many museums are under currently. Many leaders from the organization still continue to assert that deaccessioning is unethical and museums should think extremely carefully before doing it.

Recently, two museums gained a lot of attention for their deaccession plans. The Brooklyn Museum plans to sell $40 million worth of art to care for their collection, and according to Art News, the Baltimore Museum has aimed even higher, releasing its plan to sell $65 million worth of art. The Brooklyn Museum of Art’s sales have gone fairly smoothly and have made little waves, however the decision of the Baltimore Museum of Art to sell some rare and important works –such as an Andy Warhol piece– has caused controversy. 

Arnold Lehman, the former director of the Baltimore (1979-97) and Brooklyn Museums (1997-2015) told the New York Times “I’m not at all opposed to deaccessioning, but Baltimore was selling masterpieces.” It must be noted, however, that the reason the museum decided to sell these works is less callous than some critics make it out to be. 

According to The New York Times, the museum has been trying to focus on helping and supporting the community as much as it can, even before the pandemic came to the United States. Christopher Bedford, the current director of the museum, intended to use the money from the sales to acquire works from more underrepresented creators, to make a collection care endowment that would give the museum $2.5 million for pay raises for staff, and to focus on several other “equity-oriented measures.” 

While the intentions of those at the Baltimore Museum may have been altruistic, deaccession will always leave many unhappy and critical. Controversies surrounding deaccession have been going on since at least the 1960’s according to Art News and the pandemic has only brought the issue more attention.

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