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Museums need to move with the times – that’s why deaccessioning isn’t always bad news

14 March 2019

Last month the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art announced it would be selling a painting by Mark Rothko to fund the acquisition of new works of art. Similar decisions have been taken recently by the Baltimore Museum of Art, which sold seven works by white male artists in its collection, and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, which sold three paintings by the artist. While there is consensus in the art world that liquidating works in museum collections to generate operating funds should be firmly resisted and condemned, the selective deaccessioning of objects no longer deemed essential to a museum’s mission, in order to acquire new objects that are, may make good sense. As with restitution, each case is different and specific to the institution in question. What appears mission-critical to one museum may seem less so to another.

When the Museum of Modern Art opened in New York in 1929, its commitment to staying modern entailed the systematic shedding of works of art as the new became the old. Like the wake of a torpedo moving through time, to use founding director Alfred Barr’s suitably modern metaphor for MoMA’s collection policy, only a small selection of modern classics would be retained to put the latest developments in art in historical perspective. The idea proved unworkable for reasons that have become all too familiar, especially in North American museums: fear of alienating donors on whose largesse and ego museums depend; institutional rivalry – bigger is best; and the inherent difficulty of defining the canon in the face of ever-shifting taste.

Still, at MoMA and across the country, a strategic thinning of collections swollen over time through gifts (more or less wanted) and the constant pursuit of higher-quality objects has been going on for decades, albeit quietly for fear of provoking controversy. Though the fickleness of taste means it’s a bad idea to discard what may be out of fashion today lest it come back into fashion tomorrow, the march of time and inevitable re-visioning of the canon create new gaps to fill and new stories to tell. This will always be true, and in the best of worlds those gaps are filled through timely donations and inspired curatorial work. But we are currently experiencing two phenomena that accelerate need and put extraordinary pressure on museums to secure new acquisition funds.

First is the seeming inexorable shift in interest toward the contemporary among museum audiences. Alarming enough in its implications for historical collections, the rush to keep pace with the global contemporary in a steadily escalating market infected by biennial fever has severely challenged the purchasing budgets (not to mention the curatorial capacity) of virtually every museum. The temptation to exchange that middling Franz Kline and duplicate Meissen figurine held in storage for the last 40 years for the work of any number of emerging talents has never been greater.

Second, all cultural institutions in the US are going through an overdue corrective moment, a reverberation of postmodern consciousness propelled lately by a host of overlapping social movements, including Decolonize This Place, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and more. Art museums, long bastions of elite (white male) privilege, are waking to the need to become more diverse and inclusive in terms of collections, programmes, staff, and audiences. For collections, which are the material part of these broader diversification efforts, this entails a redemptive quest to rectify historical omissions, especially works by women artists and artists of colour, coupled with a no less urgent mission to diversify the now. This is the reason given by the Baltimore Museum of Art when it announced its decision last year to sell works by Kline, Warhol, Rauschenberg, Jules Olitski, and Kenneth Noland.

Some may view this as pandering to the politically correct. But American art museums have a moral responsibility and historical mandate inscribed in their charters to reach the broadest possible public; in too many cases they haven’t been living up to their commitments. Museum collections should reflect the community they serve; in too many cases they don’t, a point underscored by a recent report that 85 per cent of artists represented in US museums are white. Fostering diversity and inclusion is more than the right thing to do. Studies have shown that diversity is essential to any organisation’s success. It is also a matter of economic survival in the face of rapidly evolving demographics in the American population. Diverse collections allow museums to present more inclusive stories that are relevant and meaningful to increasingly diverse audiences.

Andrew McClellan is professor of art history at Tufts University and the co-author of The Art of Curating: Paul J. Sachs and the Museum Course at Harvard (Getty Research Institute, 2018)