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Forum: Deaccession Debates

8 September 2013

Deaccession has been on the lips of the art world press frequently in the past few weeks, and smuggled its way, unusually, into wider public debate when a bankrupt Detroit looked to be considering the sale of the Detroit Institute of Arts collection to pay off its debts.

Then came the news that the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) is to deaccession Edward Hopper’s East Wind over Weehawken (1934) to create an endowment for the acquisition of new works, prompting another flurry of discussion and occasional diatribes. It will be auctioned in December at Christie’s New York, which incidentally is where Crystal Bridges acquired its new Hopper, Blackwell’s Island (1928), something it announced just two days before PAFA’s statement – one door closes, another opens.

In a nervy period of funding cuts and financial woes, the question of whether and when to deaccession warrants serious debate; which is why it has been chosen as the inaugural topic for discussion in Apollo’s Forum, a new feature in the monthly magazine in which two experts are invited to weigh in on issues affecting the art world.

In the September print issue, James Bradburne (the Director General of the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence) argues for a more relaxed attitude to deaccessioning, with David Ekserdjian (Professor of History of Art and Film at the University of Leicester) taking the opposite view.

Bradburne observes that deaccessioning is already inscribed in western museum culture, and written into its ethical code. He argues a finer point, that the current stipulation in The Code of Ethics for the American Alliance of Museums – that funds from the sale of a collection item be used solely for the acquisition of new ones – is too restrictive to be beneficial in the long term:

‘the museum’s stewardship is not only of collections, but of the historical, scientific and social value of their interpretation and exhibition. To privilege collection and preservation over interpretation and exhibition seems wilful at best and unwarranted at worst.’

Ekserdjian, sceptical of the logistics as much as the principle of deaccessioning, points out one of the most basic obstacles to its successful management:

‘The fundamental problem with this kind of housekeeping exercise is that it necessarily presupposes that the experts in charge know what they are doing.’

And he notes how PAFA’s ‘top-lopping’ approach of selling high-value, and high-profile, items to free up funds can negatively impact future acquisitions:

‘invariably riding roughshod over the intentions of donors, [deaccessioning] can hardly fail to act as a considerable deterrent to people thinking of giving their works of art.’

Something to mull over on a Sunday afternoon: you can read James Bradburne and David Eskerdjian’s arguments in full in the current issue of Apollo.

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