I can't recommend highly enough this brief essay on deaccessioning in the Broad Streeet Review by Gresham Riley, the former president of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
It's rhetorically very interesting, a little sneaky even.
He begins by paying homage to "the most important [deaccessioning] guideline," i.e., "the stipulation that the earnings realized from the sale of a work of art must be restricted to the acquisition of other art." "Nothing in the art museum world," he correctly observes, "possesses quite the sacred cow status as this particular guideline; to breach it is to become a pariah."
He says the "essential purpose" of the rule is that it "forces museum boards to distinguish between cultural and financial assets. Objects in the permanent collection must not be treated as simply one set of fungible properties among others."
So far, nothing remarkable. It seems like we're in for yet another lecture about preserving the collection for future generations and blah blah blah.
But then he quickly pivots, noting the "compelling fact" that "art museums are under enormous financial pressure, and how they finance their operations will increasingly call for creative thought." "Within this context," he says, "I believe a fresh look at deaccession is justified."
First of all, he argues, the current rules "fail to accomplish their intended purposes— namely, to protect the public interest and to encourage prospective donors to donate art works to museums. According to this theory, without firm deaccession guidelines, donors will lack confidence in the willingness of museums to keep what is given to them."
"But," he says, "the existing policy is in fact an exercise in smoke and mirrors, providing neither guarantees of public access nor commitments to maintain possession." On the one hand, "because of limited exhibition space, most museums’ collections are consigned to storage." In addition, the current rules "don’t prohibit a museum from selling ...; they merely limit the use of proceeds from the artwork that’s sold."
Wow. Just wow.
He continues: "Nor do the current guidelines place restrictions as to whom an artwork might be sold. There are no prohibitions against selling to private collectors .... Consequently, a museum can unilaterally remove a work of art from the public domain altogether .... So much for the public trust and the public interest."
Remember my Museum Directors Hall of Fame? Gresham Riley just got his own wing.
He concludes by calling for "new, more flexible guidelines" which would allow sales proceeds to be used for "a number of object-related (and more importantly, budget-relieving) activities and staff positions." Like what?
Like: "pay[ing] the salary of a conservator and/or the expenses associated with a conservation laboratory."
Or: "the addition of education professionals to help interpret the collection to the public, or curators to help maintain the collection."
Eww! Stalinesque! Appalling! Horrible! I hereby call on the Deaccession Police to call on the AAMD to sanction Mr. Riley (and anyone he has ever associated with) at once.
The big finale:
"Current deaccession guidelines perpetuate a museum culture in which objects are ends in themselves, more important than their use to educate, to inspire, to stimulate, to empower—even more important than their care and preservation. ... Rethinking deaccession guidelines would not only reduce some of the smoke and mirrors associated with museum operations. It might also stimulate novel ideas about financing museums while legitimately expanding their basic mission."
Like I said: Hall. Of. Fame.