With a stunning announcement from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, deaccessioning has once again entered the consciousness of the general public. Family members texted me article links asking if “deaccessioning” was that word I kept talking about during graduate school. Art lovers around the country rose up to sign petitions and publicly condemn the billionaires who sit on the MET’s board.
If you are out of the loop, let me catch you up. Last year in response to the incredible loss of funds caused by COVID-19, the American Association of Museum Directors made a temporary change to their deaccessioning policy. Before, funds raised from the sale of accessioned artworks could only be put towards things that directly benefited the collection. Examples of this include improving collections storage and purchasing additional works. The change opens up new possibilities for the funds can be used.
Early this month the MET said it was looking to take advantage of the change. They would sell art that was already on the chopping block then use the funds to pay bills and staff salaries. A few other museums, such as the Brooklyn Museum, have made similar announcements.
The major argument against their actions is that the practice is unsustainable. Museums that continuously sell collections items may keep the doors open to the public but there won’t be anything for the public to see. Items are leaving the public trust without a suitable replacement coming in.
I agree with this argument and made the same one in our series about small museum deaccessioning; however, I want to ask for empathy for the staff of places like the MET. What they are doing is not completely unprecedented. During the Great Recession, museums considered similar actions. The public will suffer more if museums were to close and all of the art goes to private collectors. When push comes to shove tough decisions have to be made.
The MET is looking at a budget shortfall of over $100 million. No new works have been added to the deaccession list. They are only diverting the proceeds from already planned sales. Museum leadership is trying desperately to pay their employees. They are trying to keep from amassing debt the museum will never recover from. Is it really so horrible for them to take advantage of a temporary policy change in the field? I don’t think so.
If deaccessioning to pay bills becomes an everyday practice then there will be problems. When museums start ignoring the guidelines around what works can be deaccessioned, we should absolutely protest; however, this is not that moment. Using the funds from deaccessioned works to help during a global pandemic doesn’t seem too extreme. Museum staffs are struggling to find every penny they have. When talking about the MET averting funds from deaccessioning, keep the circumstance in mind. If you are going to critique them, do it with kindness. Everyone is doing their best.
Pogrebin, Robin, and Zachary Small. “Selling Art to Pay the Bills Divides the Nation’s Museum Directors.” The New York Times, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/19/arts/design/deaccession-museum-directors.html.
Gold, Mark S., and Stefanie S. Jandl. “Why the Association of Art Museum Directors’s Move on Deaccessioning Matters so Much.” The Art Newspaper , March 18, 2020. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/why-the-aamd-s-move-on-deaccessioning-matters-so-much.