Tough economic times have caused one of the art world’s most controversial questions to once again resurface: should museums sell works in their collection? The Rose Art Museum, which houses over 8,000 objects, brought international attention to this debate when Brandeis announced it was closing the Museum and selling the works of art in order to help the University recover from the economic decline. Due to its involvement with Bernard Madoff, Brandeis was particularly hard-hit. After months of public outcry and three series of lawsuits, the University was forced to keep the Museum open. This debacle is credited for Jehuda Reinharz’s (Brandeis University President) decision to step down.
Recently, a vast majority of art museums across the nation have been compelled to freeze salaries, shorten exhibition schedules, decrease museum programming and even cut staff. In some instances, these cut backs may have even inhibited a museum’s ability to enhance their collection by preventing the purchasing of new works. Are museums faced with the choice to make cut backs or sell a few pieces of art to help improve the museums’ situation? Yes or no, this issue has created quite uproar.
Could this heated debate be fueled by the misconceptions people have when museums appear to easily ‘dispose’ of their art? Judith Dobrzynski explains in her article The Art of the Deal, “Most important, as part of any deal permitting the sale of art, the de-accessioning museum would have to offer the works to other museums first. If it received no offers, it could sell the pieces via a public auction — and any American museum would then have the opportunity to match a winning bid if it promised to keep the work in a public collection.” Thus, most museums are not simply tossing a work right to auction for the public but rather offering the piece to other museums.
A recent New York Times article shows off the collection of Paul Dean, a Westport, Connecticut, banker. His collection is comprised of many pieces of art that have been deaccessioned by museum. The article discusses many well-known museums that deaccession and sell works at auction, such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The LA County Museum of Art, and even the New Britain Museum of American Art.
As the supposed choice of cutbacks or the deaccession of art continues to make national news, The New Britain Museum of American Art feels that deaccessioning works from the permanent collection is not such a bad thing. The Museum supports the deaccession and sale of art but only uses the money for the purchase of new works of art. It is important to always keep the museum’s collection updated and upgraded if possible, the staff and trustees believe. If the Museum discovers that there are duplicates in the collection, or if they receive better examples, it is common practice to deaccession or sell the lesser works or duplicates. In addition, some works require more restoration than they are worth. The NBMAA constantly has outside curators, directors, and scholars look at the collection and advise the Museum before any deaccession or sale. Sometimes the Museum is given large amounts of work that are never accessioned, but are simply sold and therefore were never part of the permanent collection to begin with. The Museum’s goal is to have a permanent collection full of exhibition-worthy masterpieces, and any deaccession and resulting sale are only pursued if the outcome will benefit and improve the Museum in every conceivable way.
Most museums, if not all, operate in this fashion. The case of the Rose Art Museum is quite the exception, not the rule. Regardless, it does bring up some interesting points about the general practice of museums when it comes to expelling works from the permanent collection. When you add in the monetary incentive, this turns into quite a controversial and heated topic.
What do you think about this controversy? Should museums sell works to upgrade and expand their collections? Should the money be used for operating expenses as well? Or should works be traded from museum to museum? How does the money factor complicate this situation?