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Deaccessioning Remains Controversial Even as Museums Face Existential Crises

Andy Warhol, installation view of The Last Supper, 1986, in the Contemporary Wing of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo by Matt McClain for The Washington Post. Image via Getty Images.

Andy Warhol, installation view of The Last Supper, 1986, in the Contemporary Wing of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo by Matt McClain for The Washington Post. Image via Getty Images.

To say that 2020 has been a tumultuous year for art institutions would be an understatement. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying lockdown—which caused record layoffs and calamitous drops in revenue—and the waves of criticism highlighting the overt and covert ways museum practices have routinely privileged a wealthy, white hegemonic point of view, the year has seen art museums fighting on multiple fronts to stay afloat. When the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) announced in April it was rolling back restrictions on the sale of deaccessioned works, it seemed to be offering a boon for museums whose revenue was drying up—and doubly so for institutions looking to add greater diversity to their collections amid renewed calls to address systemic racism. But as the controversy over the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA)’s recently postponed sale of deaccessioned works by , , and illustrates, the practice is far from accepted even in times of existential crisis. As the pandemic drags on, funds become even more scarce, and calls for diversity ring ever louder, why is deaccessioning still such a hot-button topic?
First, a primer. Deaccessioning refers to a practice by which a museum removes an object from its holdings in order to sell it. In years past, the AAMD’s guidelines limited the use of proceeds from such sales to acquiring new works for the museum’s collection. More often than not, museums followed the rules, selling works they deemed redundant or not in line with their priorities in order to fund the acquisition and care of works more aligned with their areas of focus. Occasionally, museums deaccessioned works to keep the lights on, the doors open, or in pursuit of expensive capital projects, to the dismay of observers and the AAMD, which typically imposed sanctions on such institutions.
Joan Miró, Couple d’amoureux dans la nuit, 1966. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Joan Miró, Couple d’amoureux dans la nuit, 1966. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

In light of the financial strain of the pandemic, however, the AAMD suspended punitive action until April 2022, allowing museums to utilize the funds from sales as they see fit. While the BMA’s deaccessions were a lightning rod of criticism, they were part of a broader wave of sales by institutions including the Brooklyn Museum and the Palm Springs Art Museum, among others, all of which have been subject to varying levels of scrutiny.
According to Martin Gammon, founder of the art advisory firm Pergamon Art Group and author of Deaccessioning and its Discontents: A Critical History (2018), much of the trouble around deaccessioning arises from museums’ multivalent obligations, which he broadly classified as the duty of care, duty of loyalty, and duty of obedience. Duty of care applies to the art object in question—ensuring it has a proper home, preferably one where it is still available to the public. Duty of loyalty means honoring the wishes of the work’s donors, who may codify the terms of their donation in contracts. Duty of obedience is an obligation to the museum itself, ensuring that it retains its ability to collect and maintain a robust array of works.
“These three duties don’t always coincide,” Gammon said. “So you have to really adjudicate these competing demands, but you do need to take them into consideration. Deaccessions can go wrong when you focus only on one set of principles and ignore your other considerations.”
Gammon posits that the blowback over the BMA’s proposed deaccessions was prompted by its seeming focus on raising funds to benefit the museum (supporting the duty of obedience) at the expense of the other two obligations. A previous round of high-profile deaccessions by the BMA, though subject to scrutiny, was carried off successfully in 2018, perhaps in part because the funds were earmarked specifically for acquisitions. Crucially, this time around the museum intended to use the funds raised to support non-collecting initiatives around diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI).
Claude Monet, Les Îles à Port-Villez, 1897. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Claude Monet, Les Îles à Port-Villez, 1897. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Henri Matisse, Le Carrefour de Malabry, 1918–19. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Henri Matisse, Le Carrefour de Malabry, 1918–19. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

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“To me, they completely bracketed out the donor intent,” Gammon said. “Their former curators and others who were instrumental in bringing these works to the museum should have had a voice in consideration over whether the sale was justified. And secondly, there is a duty of care to ensure that there is an opportunity for these works not just to be sold off to the highest bidder, but to have found another home in another institution.”
The BMA’s 2020 deaccessions were not driven by dire financial straits, but to fund the museum’s Endowment for the Future, a financial plan formulated during lockdown that will “allow the museum to expand its ongoing diversity and equity programmatic initiatives” such as increased salaries, DEAI programs, free admission for special exhibitions, and an enhanced acquisition budget. The description of the program as an engine of diversity marks it as a continuation and expansion of what curator Glenn Adamson calls “progressive deaccessioning,” which the museum previously pursued in its 2018 sales.
With these latest planned deaccessions, it appeared the museum was looking to apply the reformist spirit of those earlier sales beyond the parity of its holdings and onto museum operations as a whole. Some staff may well agree in some capacity with Gammon’s characterization of the BMA’s actions as privileging the museum above the object. In a statement released when the museum’s leaders decided to pause the planned sales at Sotheby’s, they seemed to acknowledge such criticisms while doubling down on their priorities.
“We believe that this effort is not about sacrificing history but about telling a more accurate and complete narrative of art, culture, and people,” the BMA statement read in part. “We do not abide by notions that museums exist to serve objects; we believe the objects in our collection must reflect, engage, and inspire the many different individuals that we serve.”
Helen Frankenthaler, Carousel, 1979. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Helen Frankenthaler, Carousel, 1979. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

A complicating factor in the debate over who or what the museum has the greatest duty toward is the fact that the legal ground on which these decisions are made is not totally settled. “It is not strictly a legal issue, per se,” said Kate Lucas, an art lawyer and associate at Grossman LLP in New York. “Sometimes there can be contract issues if a donor donated a work under a contract that had conditions about what the museum can and can’t do with their gift. But a lot of this is more about the ethical and operational and economic conversations that are happening in the museum space between museums and their donor communities and the communities that they serve.”
With regulatory bodies such as the AAMD taking a step back during the pandemic, decisions and debates over the sales of work are more fully governed by museums and their communities. And, as some data seems to suggest, museum leaders tended toward favoring the practice even before the pandemic.
According to Ithaka S+R’s recent “Art Museum Director Survey 2020,” which polled slightly fewer than 150 museum directors in the months before COVID-19 became a global pandemic, responding directors said that, on average, 11 percent of their museums’ collections were no longer aligned with their curatorial priorities. Additionally, some 36 percent of responding directors said they were in favor of loosening deaccessioning restrictions—a percentage that might well have been much higher had the survey been conducted a few months later.
Ultimately, debates over deaccessioning seem to stem from museums’ hazy, interstitial place between public and private. “There’s this subtext to the conversation which is, what does a museum owe to the public?” Lucas said. “When we talk about a museum having a duty to the public, what really does that involve? What does that look like?”
As the former senior editor and publications coordinator at the New Museum, Dana Kopel, wrote, the museum is a repository of objects and education, but it is also a place of work—in the United States alone, museums provide more than 726,000 jobs and contribute $50 billion to the U.S. economy each year. According to a new survey from the American Alliance of Museums, approximately 30 percent of museum staff nationwide are out of work, a number that could increase as over half of museums in the country have six months or less of operating reserves. As the pandemic ravages livelihoods and deepens the sort of structural inequalities that museums have been accused of propagating, debates around deaccessioning again circle back to questions of obligation: Who, or what, should the museum care for? And how?
Justin Kamp is an Editorial Intern at Artsy.