A New Approach to the Deaccessioning Issue

from The Art Newspaper, March 2004
March 2004
By Adrian Ellis

As word spreads, the museum community will doubtless respond badly to the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s decision to ship its Monets to Las Vegas for a tour of duty at the Bellagio, as reported [elsewhere] in this month’s AN. The profession has already responded badly to the court request that the Barnes investigate the possibility of some judicious de-accessioning as an alternative to its currently favoured but no less fraught option of abandoning Lower Merion and relocating to downtown Philadelphia.

There is an important distinction between renting your collection out for a while and selling bits of it. But the motives are the same: finding a way through the dilemma of the sector – overbuilt and undercapitalised; cash poor, but asset rich; with a high ratio of fixed to variable costs, choking core purposes of stewardship, scholarship and effective public display.

De-accessioning in the context of shaping a collection is one thing, broadly sanctioned provided there are no sudden moves, the logic is transparent; and donors intentions are honoured. Treating your collections as a balance sheet item is however quite another. But these moves – like the Museum of Northern Arizona’s convulsive decision to sell weavings and paintings to fund its revenue or the Royal Armory’s negotiations to lease part of its collection to the Owsley Brown Frazier Historical Arms Museum, a private museum in Louisville, Kentucky – are straws in the wind.

Just as public collections will be reshaped over the next quarter century by the converging demands for restitution from an ever growing and more sophisticated set of parties, so the tensions between the enormous financial value of collections and the lack of liquidity of the institutions that own them are likely to manifest themselves in increasingly strange ways. The sector’s response to restitution shows every sign of being piecemeal, defensive and ultimately damaging to its long term standing in the eyes of the wider community in which museums operate and on which they are dependent for funding. Similarly, the current absolutist line on deaccessioning for purposes other than incremental shaping of collections, for all its internal logic and determined prudence, is likely to be a source of tension between museum professionals and the wider community – not least as represented on their boards.

At its simplest the question will be: why are you going down the tubes / cutting public programmes / allowing backlogs to conservation work / closing galleries when a radical approach to a tiny proportion of your collection could remedy this problem? Neither legalistic defences nor arguments about ‘slippery slopes’ are likely to hold sway in the long term – again echoes of restitution...

One approach that respects the intentions underpinning the current position on de-accessioning whilst allowing for a more balanced allocation of resources might be for the museum community to see itself more as just that – a community – and allow for a more comfortable distribution of resources between cash poor asset rich institutions and asset poor cash rich ones, allowing them to trade to mutual advantage, irrespective of the application of funds generated by sales. Sales could be restricted to museums that conform to appropriate standards of conservation and scholarly or public access and any sale could be caveated to prevent on-sale to third parties that did not meet similar conditions. All this would undoubtedly limit the proceeds from sales but there are, and will remain, sufficient cash rich institutions meeting these standards – not just the Getty! – for there to be a significant market. If necessary the guidelines could also earmark the proceeds in some way so as to ensure that they were not committed to further under funded expansion leading to a further need to de-accession.

Well-honed though the current position of the museum profession internationally is the circumstances in which de-accessioning is acceptable, there is a growing number of museums that could realize their missions – including their responsibilities of stewardship and to scholarship – more effectively if they had a different balance of working capital, reserves and endowment to artefacts. The most effective way of addressing that balance may be through capitalizing part of their collections. This step is far too controversial for any museum director to wish to do it alone and thereby risk becoming a pariah. And to do it in a way that put artefacts at risk would be irresponsible. But if the movement as a whole were to embrace more readily active trades within the museum community then it would open up a set of possibilities whose absence results in some of the oddities we are currently witnessing.