U.S. museums hit hard by the pandemic are selling paintings to bridge income gaps, with some going further and using the funds to diversify collections, but critics say the sale betrays the institutions’ mission to preserve works of art for the public.
US museums could only sell works, so-called deaccessioning, to buy back others until April 2020, when the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) lifted the ban for two years to allow institutions to compensate for coronavirus losses.
Some museums take the opportunity to renew and diversify their collections, but others have been forced to go back after opposition from local communities.
In September, the Brooklyn Museum, which was already struggling financially before the pandemic, released 12 works, including a Monet and two Dubuffets, for sale to raise money to keep its collection.
Earlier this year, the director of the New York Metropolitan Museum, Max Hollein, stated that money raised from the sale of works would be spent on fundraising costs, such as salaries for staff.
Hollein downplayed the importance of the sale and stressed that the move is only temporary.
“American institutions have been declining for decades,” he told AFP, adding that Met had no plans to sell more works in 2021 than they have done in previous years.
“We are very knowledgeable in doing that, we believe in it, we feel that there is an advantage to our collection, development,” says Hollein.
The sale of works of art was already controversial in the museum community. In general, institutions in Anglo-Saxon countries have been open to controlled sales, while museums in Latin cultural countries have opposed it.
Serge Lasvignes, president of the Paris Pompidou Center, says he “doubts the value of going down this road.”
“It’s extremely worrying if wall art becomes a financial asset,” said lawyer Laurence Eisenstein, who recently led an uprising against officials at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The museum hoped to raise $ 65 million by selling three major works, including a Warhol.
The sale was intended to create a preservation fund for the main museum in a city with a predominantly black population and to “rebalance” the collection by acquiring works by women and minority artists.
In the face of criticism, the museum canceled the plan and chose to raise money through donations instead.
Most museums refuse to share their most important pieces and believe that their mission is to preserve important works.
Met mainly sold works of which it had several copies or pieces by that artist during the same period, according to Hollein.
Other less prestigious institutions have taken more drastic measures. The Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, sold a Pollock for $ 12 million in October.
The Everson Museum of Art will auction off a Jackson Pollock worth up to $ 18 million to diversify its collection and acquire works by black and female artists https://t.co/Su00L7WZSH
– ArtTactic (@ArtTactic) September 4, 2020
The museum used the money to diversify its collection but withdrew in some parts.
“An art museum sells its soul,” wrote Wall Street Journal columnist Terry Teachout.
“(It) uses the commendable goal of funding a more diverse collection as an excuse to betray public confidence,” he said.
Eisenstein, a lawyer in Baltimore, fears that donors and authorities will withdraw financial support from facilities that sell lots of works.
“At that time, it will be very difficult for museums to become loyal and trusted guardians of cultural assets in the United States,” he said.
However, adding works by artists from minorities is a response to strong demand, reinforced by Black Lives Matter marching towards racial inequalities in 2020.
Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, has acquired works by Shinique Smith, Ellen Lesperance and other artists following the controversial decision to remove a Jackson Pollock painting https://t.co/r919662AGN
– ARTnews (@artnews) January 7, 2021
Many in the museum community believe that it is possible to gather diversity without replacing works.
While Met has prioritized diversification, “we are not using our current existing collection to succeed with these goals,” Hollein said, adding that the facility prefers to look after its donors.
For Brian Frye, a professor of law at the University of Kentucky, the statutes of American museums, almost all non-profit, should be sufficient to protect against a drive against deaccession.
“Do I think museums will start making money on their collection kind of villy-nilly? No, I really do not. I think a lot of people are kind of having a big freak-out about this,” he said.
Baltimore Museum of Art Director Christopher Bedford says the long-term framework that the AAMD has set up “must be reviewed” so that institutions can financially meet their mission of diversifying.
Meanwhile, “we slip into irrelevance because we refuse to update our models of thinking and doing,” he added.