Outdated Rules Are Killing Museums—Here’s How Things Can Change
The Berskhire Museum, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
A number of art museums over the past decade have run into financial trouble, for reasons ranging from declining donations to adverse local situations (Detroit, for example), as well as increasing storage costs for housing ever-increasing acquisitions. Often, as is the case of the Berkshire Museum, factors are out of museum management’s control. The region around the museum’s seat of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, fell victim to industrial decline. Unfortunately, museums of all sizes may face future financial headwinds, thanks to an increase in private museums; changes in the tax treatment of gifts since last year’s tax bill was signed into law; and the high probability of a recession within the next two or three years, which could dampen charitable giving.
There is a solution within reach. Museums could deaccession, or sell, works from their collections, in order to shore up their finances, mount more shows, and reduce admission costs. The only hitch? The country’s major accrediting group, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), won’t let them. Just last week, the Association of Art Museum Directors announced sanctions on the Berkshire Museum for doing so, as well as the art museum at Philadelphia’s La Salle University, expanding on the criticisms of the AAM.
Consider the costs of not deaccessioning. Some high-profile institutions have made admission fees mandatory for out-of-town visitors, like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art—rendering one of the world’s greatest art collections less accessible than ever. At the same time, most of the country’s art—millions of works—languishes in storage.
We have calculated—using extreme assumptions—the ability of major American museums to exhibit their permanent collections at any one time. In a ratio of exhibition-space-to-collection, New York’s Whitney Museum would be able to exhibit only 10.8 percent of its permanent collection. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Museum of Art could display no more than 13.7 percent of its holdings, while Atlanta’s High Museum would only be able to exhibit 0.003 percent. If these estimated exhibition ratios are typical of the majority of America’s biggest and best museums—and we have calculated that they are—a huge amount of work these museums have acquired is hidden away in storage at any given time. There is a distinct possibility many of these stored works may never be exhibited.
Storage of so much artwork comes at devastatingly high financial costs. Storage areas must be either rented or newly constructed, and all of these spaces must be equipped with state-of-the-art climate control and security systems: AAM guidelines mandate that an acknowledged fake must be as carefully stored as an authentic Rembrandt. Extensive and accurate records must be kept and overseen by skilled staff. Although comprehensive data is not available at this point, one researcher in 2002 estimated the total cost of storing America’s art at over $300 million annually—and that reflects the economy in 1988. Nearly 30 years on, with the situation only getting worse as growing collections require increased space, we believe it realistic to estimate this cost at closer to $1 billion annually and rising. One of us has directed four museums and has faced this problem of growing storage cost ourselves.
The AAM does permit deaccessioning—if and only if funds from the sale of art from permanent collections are used to buy more art. The organization is understandably concerned that unscrupulous and incompetent boards could sell valuable works to cover up or make up for financial mismanagement, a rank dereliction from a museum’s duty to safeguard our cultural heritage, and a decision that would likely deter future donations from potential patrons. Museums that do choose to deaccession run the risk of losing their AAM accreditations, which makes it difficult—if not impossible—to borrow from other museums. This, then, makes it harder for both larger museums to assemble “blockbuster” exhibitions, and for smaller museums to put on more modest shows.
We believe that the position against deaccessioning has become increasingly untenable, given increasing storage costs and the decreasing likelihood that a large portion of great art will rarely, if ever, be shown. This regulation also restricts necessary mission changes and financial preparation for an uncertain future. We propose an update to the AAM’s current position, one that would give museums the flexibility and autonomy to refine and hone their collections, while ensuring they have the resources needed to best serve their communities.
Instead of a full-fledged ban on deaccessioning, the AAM could require that an artwork up for sale be offered first to other institutions over a certain period of time, prior to a commercial sale that could see the work disappear into a private collection. For example, a Frederic Remington watercolor collecting dust in the warehouse of a contemporary museum in New York or Cleveland might be coveted and exhibited often by a museum in Wyoming or Oklahoma. Deaccessioning has, in this example, directed funds to one museum while strengthening another museum’s collection, and alleviated crowding in storage areas while providing greater access to more works of art to the general public. The prudence of this strategy seems indisputable.
Funds expended for storage are funds not applied to other, more public areas of the museum. We can only wonder how many endowments haven’t been created or strengthened, exhibitions not mounted, museum buildings neglected, expansion plans abandoned, and staff hires not taken place because funds are being siphoned off to storage. Confronting these needs are the strategic moves that assure a museum’s health.
In its present form, the AAM’s deaccessioning policy hinders—rather than facilitates—access to one of America’s greatest sources of cultural capital: the art museum. With some updating, the AAM could usher in a new era where permanent collections in the U.S. are better maintained as the American museum directs its resources towards those works directly related to its mission. Troubled institutions will be better able to keep doors open, while larger institutions, like the Met, may consider opening their doors a little wider. The big winner in all of this, though, is the museum-going public.
Author’s estimations based on telephone interviews of major U. S. museums and museums’ published data online. Our calculations are based on an extreme set of assumptions with respect to exhibit space and collection size. We compute the perimeter of a hypothetical exhibition hall, assume 8-foot ceilings and 24 x 24 inch paintings to compute the maximum number of paintings that can possibly be displayed by a museum. To compute the maximum possible percentage of the collection that could be displayed at any one time, we take this number as a percent of the total number of items in the collection. An estimate of 10 to 25 percent of the numbers provided in the text would be more realistic. Please contact the authors for more detailed methodology and data for other museums: ( at [email protected]); ( or [email protected]).
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the AAM announced sanctions on the Berkshire Museum, as well as the art museum at Philadelphia's La Salle University, in conjunction with the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). It was the AAMD that officially imposed the sanctions on the institutions, however, in a joint statement with the AAM.