The cultural sector in Germany has faced a tough time in the years since unification. The causes are easy enough to identify:

  • the collapse of public funding and the failure of the sector to develop a broader financial base (fundraising and commercial income generation are in their infancy in Germany);
  • a highly decentralised arts-policy framework, with decisions regarding priorities taken by cities and Länder (states) rather than by national government; and
  • the lack, at local level, of much by way of political will or leadership to deal with the inefficiencies and over-supply that typified the East German economy as a whole and that have inflated the cost base of the arts sector in a unified Germany.

As each city has struggled with its own undercapitalised orchestras, museums, opera companies and repertory theatres, politics has tended to trump economics. Much of the German cultural sector has therefore become deeply absorbed in the manoeuvres required to ensure its own survival. Cultural life in Germany would almost certainly be more vital with a smaller, better capitalised arts sector, but the path to it is unclear.

So it is not surprising that in the combination of acute financial need and firmly local and regional political oversight, the issue of deaccessioning is cropping up in fairly primitive forms. Krefeld City Council is contemplating disposing of a Monet, Bonn disposed of a Georg Baselitz recently, Bremen a Renoir, and Hagen a Richter. The Audit Office of Baden-Württemberg has recommended that the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart sell off unspecified parts of its collection to balance its accounts (see p11).

None of these planned or actual sales is driven by the intention that is supposed to inform sales from public museums in Germany as in most other countries with a developed code of professional practice: that of re-investing in the collection. As article 4.3 of International Council of Museums’ (ICOM) Code of Ethics puts it: “Money or compensation received from the deaccessioning and disposal of objects and specimens from a museum collection should be used solely for the benefit of the collection and normally for acquisitions to that collection.”

The motives for ICOM’s policy are sensible: to ensure that short-term financial considerations do not lead to plundering of collections and to protect the long term wishes of donors. In a word, stewardship. However, a great deal of professional energy is going to be needed to hold the current line. The combination of a strong art market, a financially straightened museum sector, and governance structures dominated by local businessmen or politicians unengaged by museum ethics is together likely to lead to a broadening gap between policy and practice.

I argued a couple of years ago in this publication that art museums might like to “go with the flow” a bit more, and look at deaccessioning through the other end of the telescope, concerning themselves more with to whom the object is sold and under what conditions than the purposes to which the proceeds are put. The core purposes of the current policy would be protected and it would be an easier line to hold. However, without something added to the mix, it is difficult to see how the policy and the principles that inform it are going to survive the pressures.

The public standing of museums has taken a knocking in the past few years because of such issues as their disarray and moral ambivalence over restitution claims. Museums’ standing and the rationale for their claims on the public realm and for philanthropic support are all subject to rowdy and not necessarily well informed re-examination both in the press and the courts. The core claim to legitimacy, and the principle that the deaccessioning policy underpins, relates to stewardship of material culture.

The guilty secret of which many in the profession are acutely aware is that of the museum sector’s inability to conserve and preserve its holdings adequately, a fundamental shortcoming. Many national and local museums with fine permanent and temporary galleries and splendid education programmes have archives that fail basic environmental standards and accumulating backlogs of remedial conservation work. They are not necessarily to blame; the challenges in raising funds for these unostentatious core purposes are notorious.

The spate of German disposals in the news may be no more than straws in the wind, but they seem to me to be the harbinger of a new chapter in the global economy of art museums in which a simple “utilitarian” approach to deaccessioning fails to convince those outside the profession, and in which smaller regional museums, less in the thrall of national and international professional mores, feel the pressure more quickly and intensely than the larger national museums. The deaccessioning line will be further weakened if it is played out against a backcloth of public scepticism about the sector’s ability to fulfil the very responsibilities that give rise to the policy.

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