Sometimes museums get in trouble. Deep trouble. Not because they damage art, or let it get stolen ... but because they sell it. The Delaware Art Museum is the latest target of the art world's ire — for selling one painting from its collection to try and tackle a debt, and for revelations in the past few days that two more paintings are up for sale.
The controversy relates to a serious museum practice with an unfriendly name: "deaccessioning," or the permanent removal of an object from the collection. There are rules around when and how deaccessioning can take place. Break those rules and there are some unpleasant consequences.
Trustees at the Delaware Art Museum are trying to pay off a $19.8 million debt for a building expansion and replenish its endowment. So, in June, they decided to deaccession a painting in their collection by selling it at auction. That's a big no-no, according to the Association of Art Museum Directors, an umbrella organization of more than 200 members that came up with the guidelines.
According to Susan Taylor, director of the New Orleans Museum of Art and the AAMD's current president, "The proceeds from the sale or funds from the deaccession can only be used to buy other works of art." The AAMD has sanctioned the Delaware Art Museum. Among other punitive measures, the AAMD has called for other museums to discontinue working with the Delaware museum.
"The principle for us is that works of art shouldn't be considered liquid assets to be converted into cash," says Taylor. "They're records of human creativity that are held in the public trust."
The Delaware Art Museum declined to be interviewed for this story. In a Q&A on their website, trustees say they've tried for five years to find ways to pay off the debt, including cuts to museum staff and refinancing. They now plan to sell two more works — a painting by Winslow Homer and a sculpture by Alexander Calder.
To be clear, deaccessioning is not forbidden. According to the guidelines, art can be sold if, for example, it's of poor quality or it turns out to be fake. But the restrictions don't make a lot of sense to some art professionals, especially that the money must be used to acquire more art.
"Maybe the museum doesn't need any more art," says Marion Maneker who publishes The Art Market Monitor. Maneker says the AAMD's guidelines are reasonable under normal circumstances, but not if a museum is in dire straits.
"Once you've decided to sell a work of art, what you end up with is money. And money is fungible. And saying that that money has to be cordoned off and only used for art doesn't address the realities of running any sort of museum. An art museum has to have the ability to breathe and circulate like any other organic body," Maneker says.
Deaccessioning has been a huge issue in Detroit. When the city declared bankruptcy, it had to put all of its assets on the table. Detroit's most valuable asset? The art collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts. But Detroit's attorney general said the art cannot be sold because it's a public trust.
Graham Beal, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, says museums need to think very carefully about the future before even considering a sale.
"During the Depression, when the DIA almost closed, there is no talk of selling art whatsoever," Beal says. "If they had, they would have sold their new Van Gogh, the first Van Gogh to enter a U.S. museum or the same with our great Matisse. We wouldn't have them now."
To visitors to the museums and galleries on the National Mall, the logic around the rules of deaccessioning doesn't make a lot of sense. One visitor, Jim Pohlmann of Alexandria, Va., says not every museum is located in an area with deep pockets.
"I think you have to do what you have to do," says Pohlmann. "And that might be to sell a couple of pieces of art. Not necessarily the ones that you have that are meant to draw people in. Those are sacred. You keep those. But I mean they all have stuff laying around in their basement that they only bring out periodically. Dump those."