Monday, February 05, 2007

Debating Deaccessioning

WHYY in Philadelphia did a show this morning on the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts' sale of Eakins's Cello Player in order to help pay for The Gross Clinic, mentioned earlier here and here. The guests were Herbert Riband, a member of the PAFA board, CultureGrrl Lee Rosenbaum, and law professor Stephen Urice. Lee has a post up about the show here, which includes a link where you can access it and have a listen.

I'm generally unsympathetic to Lee's "absolutist" position on deaccessioning, and I think Professor Urice was correct in pointing out that the AAMD's list of six deaccessioning rationales is not exclusive and that the museum community has traditonally endorsed the sale of artwork in order to purchase better artwork. But one thing I think he passes over too quickly was the admission earlier in the show by Mr. Riband that he didn't know who the buyer is. I think an argument can made that the nature of the buyer is crucial in evaluating a deaccession decision: all else being equal, a sale to a public buyer -- where the work will remain accessible to the public -- should always be preferable to a private sale. Now, Professor Urice seemed to take some comfort in the fact, also disclosed earlier in the show by Mr. Riband, that the buyer has agreed to periodically lend the work back to PAFA for public display, but I question whether the board can have adequately discharged its duty of care without at least knowing where the work is going to be when it's not on loan to the museum. It may well be that, when all the relevant factors are considered -- the price, the nature of the buyer, and the details regarding the commitment to lend back the work -- the sale was in fact justified as the best/only way to acquire The Gross Clinic. But, again, I'm not sure how that judgment can be made without knowing who the buyer is.