Earlier this week, the Brooklyn Museum announced its plan to sell 12 historical paintings in order to pay for the maintenance of their full collection. The auctions will take place on October 1 and 15 at Christie’s, and includes lauded works by Courbet, Corot and Cranach, amongst others, with works ranging in estimated value from $30,000 to $1.8 million. Museum Director Anne Pasternak said in a statement: “This is something that is hard for us to do.” She further stated that the museum hopes to build up a $40 endowment in order to care for their stash of works.
The Brooklyn Museum is not the first art institution even this month to announce a major auction from their collection. The Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York announced in early September their plan to sell a major Jackson Pollock painting, Red Composition, 1946 next month. The Brooklyn Museum itself sold its own work as recently as last November, when they auctioned off Francis Bacon’s Pope for $6.6 million (a figure barely above their low estimate). That said, this announcement certainly marks one of the larger sales in recent memory.
The practice of museums selling off artwork to private patrons – known as deaccessioning – is a contentious convention at best. Many art purists and critics believe it is wrong on a moral level, as art patronage and viewership is a public affair that contributes to culture and historical archiving; so selling important works to private parties instantly diminishes that communal conversation. Art critic Robert Storr likens the practice to a library selling its own books. Many also see it as a betrayal; giving away significant works of art that provide collective discussion, interpretation, and intellectual back and forth inhibits the academic integrity of a museum’s core purpose. While some museums would, and have argued that selling rarely discussed, lesser displayed artwork does not violate the trust of said art purists, many recent sales, like the aforementioned Pollock and Bacon works, were of highly coveted paintings.
Deaccessioning is not without regulations. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) forbids the selling of artwork from a museum’s collection for any purpose other than acquiring new works. That said, this rule is not legally mandated, only dictated by the organization. In fact, the past decade and a half has seen American institutions like New York’s National Academy of Design, the Delaware Art Museum and the Berkshire Museum lambasted by the art world and official museum associations for using the proceeds from their auctions to fund standard operating and maintenance costs.
This power has been used for good however. Just last summer, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) sold a lauded Mark Rothko painting for $50.1 million in order to fill their historical art gaps by acquiring works from more artists of color. The Baltimore Museum of Art followed suit a few months later by selling artwork with the intention of buying more works by women. While those moves were certainly met with an expected degree of controversy, on the whole they took far more nuanced and aware approaches to deaccessioning. The Everson Museum has even pledged to use the funds received from selling their aforementioned Pollock painting to acquire more works by women and artists of color.
The AAMD has thrown these institutions a bone as of late, and loosened regulations in the wake of COVID-19. They officially announced that museums may “use the proceeds from deaccessioned art to pay for expenses associated with the direct care of collections” for a time spanning a touch over a year and a half, until April 10, 2022. The Brooklyn museum is the first to publicly take advantage of these new rules.
This comes as a much needed respite from the financial woes of the majority of American museums during the pandemic. Simply put, these institutions are struggling. Even with many museums reopening in recent weeks, with reduced capacity and therefore revenue on the table, the massive dollars that go into maintaining collections of varying sizes take their toll. Museums simply do not have the current patronage or backup capital to bolster their backlog.
As more and more museums continue facing the harsh financial realities of the pandemic, art patrons and general enthusiasts have become more understanding of the once controversial practice of selling artwork. Many vocal critics have begun to see deaccessioning as a necessary evil of sorts needed to keep their favorite museums alive. We may publicly lose some significant art pieces in the process, but that will hopefully be a small price to pay in the long run for the privilege of experiencing history’s greatest works in person again at our favorite museums.