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American museums should not be selling their art to keep the lights on

19 February 2021

In recent months, several American museums have decided to sell artworks to raise funds for operating costs. These sales would previously have been prohibited by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), the de facto industry watchdog in the United States. But in light of the pandemic, the AAMD temporarily relaxed its rules in April 2020, and museums have moved quickly to take advantage of the situation. Last week the New York Times announced that even the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the largest and most influential museum in the United States, is considering following suit.

This drama has been attended by a chorus of protests and counterclaims. To some, these sales seem like the thin end of a wedge that will have profound consequences for the sector; to others, that position is an overreaction. Speaking as a long-time museum director, I am concerned for a number of reasons: I fear that what was instituted as a temporary measure will become the norm; that the relaxation of the guidelines will undermine the AAMD’s authority to police deaccessioning in the future; that donor trust will be damaged; that boards and civic entities may take advantage of the new guidelines to evade their fiduciary responsibilities; that the premise that museum art collections are not taxable assets could be overturned; and that the tax deduction for charitable giving to art museums could also be called in question.

First, a bit of background: for Europeans, the notion of selling art from museum collections might sound unthinkable – most old-world museum collections are inalienable. In the United States, however, the practice has considerable precedent, not to raise operating funds, but as a tool to prune and grow a collection. According to the AAMD’s longstanding guidelines, a work of art could be sold if it was surplus to the evolving mission of the collection, if it duplicated pieces by the same artist or school in the collection, or if it was second-rate or compromised. Deaccessioning proceeds could only be applied to the purchase of other works of art, however. These guidelines have served the art museum sector well for several decades, providing museums with a firm defence against internal or external pressure to monetise their collections for anything but collection growth.

Following the first wave of shelter-in-place orders and the collapse of the US stock market, the AAMD board announced that for a two-year period it would allow museums to apply deaccession revenue to ‘collection care’. While this change from long-standing custom was ostensibly a response to the crisis, it was also the culmination of years of lobbying within the organisation by a group of influential museum directors, most of them running modern art museums, who wanted to change the rules to bring the AAMD into line with the American Alliance of Museums, which already allows this practice.

For the person in the street, the relaxation of seemingly arcane rules in such a crisis must sound sensible. There is a widespread belief that the basements of art museums are stuffed with valuable treasures that aren’t being shared with the public. The reality is different. First, most US museums have the majority of their collections on display, with the exception of study collections of various kinds, and light-sensitive works such as drawings and prints, photographs, costume and textiles. Second, the kind of art that most museums can legitimately deaccession is not that valuable. Second-rate Old Masters and out-of-fashion furniture, glassware and textiles, even 19th-century undergarments, do not excite the marketplace. Most deaccessioning yields returns in the low thousands, rather than seven-figure sums. The big money is in Impressionist and modern art works. In 2019, for example, SFMOMA deaccessioned one of its 14 Rothkos for more than $50 million, with the goal of raising funds to acquire art by women artists and artists of colour – an entirely legitimate application of the AAMD process. This is the exception. For most museums, the returns from deaccessioning are much lower. Of course, even small returns are useful for institutions where, in the absence of other purchase funds, deaccessioning revenue may be the only way to grow the collection.

If deaccessioning is already a standard practice, does it then matter if proceeds are directed to operating costs for two years, rather than collection growth? There are several, interrelated reasons for caution.

First, I fear that the AAMD has created an uncontrollable situation. It seems optimistic to believe that it can relax its rules for two years and then reimpose them. The financial repercussions of the pandemic will last beyond that and it will be hard to make the case to a troubled institution in three or five years that deaccessioning for operating costs is no longer an option. If a significant number of institutions take advantage of this two-year window, then the practice is likely to become a norm. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, as they say.

A second uncertainty is whether the AAMD will succeed in ring-fencing the application of deaccession funds to a narrowly defined concept of ‘collection care’ – towards conservation materials and staff, for example. The definition of collection care is amorphous – repairing the roof is a type of collection care, as is paying the salaries of security guards. Inevitably, some institutions will use the loosening of the rules to push for a variety of goals beyond collection care. This is exactly what happened last autumn when the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) came within a hair’s breadth of deaccessioning its most important Warhol painting, its only oil painting by Brice Marden, and its only Clyfford Still, to raise funds for a range of important diversity, inclusion, equity and access initiatives. The sale was halted at the 11th hour after widespread criticism in the national press and from museum professionals. But it was a bruising moment, not only for the BMA, but also for the AAMD leadership. And, confusingly, it short-circuited the issue of deaccessioning with the question of diversity. My own view is that this important issue needs to be addressed from existing funds or expanded fundraising, but not from the sale of museum collections.

This leads to the question of what donors are going to think. The majority of US museum collections were donated by citizens who believed that their gifts and the credit lines that accompany them would be a lasting monument to their generosity. Under previous AAMD rules, if a work was deaccessioned, the donor would still be recognised in the credit line attached to a new purchase. But you can’t attach a donor name to a light, to a telephone bill or to other vague ‘collection care’ expenses. This could be a big turn-off for future donors.

Moreover, if it becomes the norm for museums to sell artwork to cover operating expenses, it could undermine the fiduciary responsibility of museum boards to run their institutions within existing incomes, or to supplement those incomes when things get tough. The premise of board service in the United States is, ‘give, get, or get off’. Loosened deaccession rules could release boards from this responsibility. There may also be ramifications for institutions that receive civic funding. Reeling from depleted tax incomes, civic authorities might be emboldened to require local museums to sell artworks to ease the strain – a ploy infamously attempted by the City of Detroit in 2013. My fear, in both scenarios, is that the expedient solution would turn into a dependency.

Loosening the deaccession regulations may also stir new public debate about the long-standing presumption, baked for decades into federal and state regulations, that museum art collections should not be classified as assets. In the polarised climate of our time, one can envisage this becoming a new frontier in the culture wars, with extremists on the right and left calling for change. If that were to happen, museums could then become liable for taxation (at the point of donation or deaccession, for instance). Another consequence is that the charitable deduction that is such an incentive to the generosity of many US philanthropists might also come under attack (the tax deduction for art museums was under close scrutiny as recently as the end of the first Obama administration).

The AAMD has acted with the best of intentions, but opened a Pandora’s box. Am I overthinking this? The situation is unprecedented, and my point of view will strike some as conservative because it is hard, so far, to identify specific negative consequences of the AAMD’s decision. But when you’re walking forward in darkness, small steps prevent stumbling. Large museums like the Met, MoMA, Brooklyn and others will pull through all this, irrespective of the advantage they take of the relaxation of the AAMD guidelines. My concern is rather for the welfare of those museums that do not have valuable duplicate works to sell. Without the authoritative shield of ‘we can’t do that because the AAMD regulations won’t allow it’, I fear these institutions will face increasing pressure to monetise their most valuable works, with dire consequences for the communities they serve and for the standing of the US art museum sector as a whole.

Thomas P. Campbell is the director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. From 2009–17, he was director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

One comment

  1. Meghan O'Callaghan Feb 26 2021 at 4:47 pm

    “I fear these institutions will face increasing pressure to monetise their most valuable works, with dire consequences for the communities they serve and for the standing of the US art museum sector as a whole.”
    – What about the staff layoffs due to lack of funds? Does the museum not have responsibility to that most direct community? Additionally, what of addressing the museums that have to build extravagantly expensive storage facilities that house thousands of objects that never see the light of day?

    Malcolm Gladwell recently released a 2 part series on this topic that was very interesting.

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