Should a Museum Be Allowed to Sell $50 Million of Work to Keep the Lights On?

  • Frederic Edwin Church, Valley of the Santa Ysabel, 1875. Courtesy of Sotheby’s New York.

    Frederic Edwin Church, Valley of the Santa Ysabel, 1875. Courtesy of Sotheby’s New York.

The planned sale by the Berkshire Museum of 40 artworks for an estimated $50 million to pay for renovations and shore up its endowment has once again brought the debate over whether museums should be allowed to deaccession works back into the spotlight.

The works to be deaccessioned (the industry term for museums selling works from their permanent collections) include pieces by Norman Rockwell, Alexander Calder, Francis Picabia, and others from “the fine art categories of Impressionist and Modern Art, Contemporary Art, 19th-Century European Paintings, American Art, Old Master Paintings, and Chinese Works of Art,” according to a statement released by the museum. The works will be auctioned by Sotheby’s.

Museum industry groups say the sale of artworks by institutions for financial reasons discourages potential future donations and violates ethical and professional guidelines. Critics of those guidelines say they’re logically incoherent and unnecessarily harsh.

“One of the most fundamental and long-standing principles of the museum field is that a collection is held in the public trust and must not be treated as a disposable financial asset,” the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), said in a joint statement condemning the decision by the Pittsfield, Massachusetts museum. The AMM’s and AAMD’s deaccessioning policies permit the sale of artworks only in order to buy other art and care for a museum’s collection.

But critics say this blanket prohibition, taken to its logical conclusion, can force a financially troubled institution to close its doors rather than sell a work. That would seem to run counter to the responsibilities of a museum director, who has a fiduciary duty to preserve the organization itself, said Brian Frye, a law professor at the University of Kentucky who has written on deaccessioning.

He believes museum directors should be given more discretion in when they might sell a work; would it be justifiable, for example, to sell work in order to provide free admission or scholarships for people from disadvantaged communities?

The argument that “art is special, and you shouldn’t sell it for these crass commercial reasons, that’s not really an argument,” Frye said, adding that he would like to see an engaged debate around the pros and cons of when and whether to sell works, rather than a flat prohibition.

Violating industry guidelines around the sale of art can have repercussions. When the Delaware Art Museum deaccessioned a painting in 2014 to pay off a $19.8 million debt, the AAMD called for other museums to stop working with it. Museums typically loan each other works for exhibitions. Laura Lott, president and chief executive officer of the Alliance, declined to tell the Berkshire Eagle if it will sanction the Berkshire Museum. The AAM and AAMD did not respond to Artsy’s request for comment.

Berkshire Museum executive director Van Shields told the Eagle that such a sanction would not make a “material difference” to the museum, which is reorienting its programming to include more of a focus on science, in addition to art and history. The Berkshire Museum declined to comment for this story.

Shields said the proceeds will go toward a $20 million renovation and increasing the museum’s current $8.6 million endowment. He told the New York Times that the move would address budget shortfalls that plagued the institution for over 20 years.

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Many museums experience challenges finding sources of revenue beyond admissions and donations from deep-pocketed philanthropists, and can face financial crises caused by economic factors beyond their control. But the long-running nature of the Berkshire Museum’s deficit raises questions about museum management, said Michael Rushton, an economics professor specialized in arts administration at Indiana University.

He said the prohibition of deaccessioning for financial reasons could be designed to discourage the use of art assets as a safety net to bail out poorly run institutions, as a “discipline device,” rather than an ethical question.

“I’ve never seen a case where a solidly financially successful museum goes out and says, ‘let’s deaccession a bunch of stuff,’” Rushton said. “It’s always a good question to ask, what led to this?”


—Anna Louie Sussman