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?