Friday, February 12, 2021

A rumble of dissent (UPDATED)

The Art Newspaper article I linked to in the update to the last post ("Rumbles of dissent") includes the following quote from Martin Gammon, author of Deaccessioning and its Discontents: A Critical History:

"The Met, like every other major encyclopeadic museum, deaccessions all the time, and there is nothing wrong in principle with extending that practice to support the direct care of collections in the current two-year window."

I take that to be a pretty standard view. There is nothing wrong -- in principle -- with extending that practice (i.e., the practice of routine deaccessioning) to support the direct care of collections.

So if we take the form of the sentence -- "There is nothing wrong, in principle, with extending the practice to _________________" -- we know there are at least two ways to fill in the blank that most people think are acceptable: to buy more work, and to support the direct care of the collection.

The question I've been asking (and asking) is: why can't there be a third? Why can't we say there is nothing wrong, in principle, with extending the practice to, for example, keep a failing institution from having to shut its doors? What are the arguments against filling in the blank in that way that don't also apply to filling in the blank with "to support direct care of the collection"? Why is supporting the direct care of the collection a more valuable thing than keeping from going bankrupt? Once you say the practice is okay for reasons A and B, why can't it also be okay for reason C? We have to look closely at reason C, and ask whether, in the particular case in front of us, it's worth selling work to support it. But in principle why should we rule out the possibility completely?

UPDATE: Deaccessioning Hall of Fame Scholar-in-Residence Brian Frye is with me: "What is the 'principle' that prohibits deaccessioning for an otherwise good purpose? There isn't one, which is why the deaccessioning police only ever raise their voices when challenged. What is the correct 'principle' for deaccessioning? Museums should deaccession works whenever the museum thinks it's the right choice. If you disagree, take it up with the board members, who are ultimately responsible. If they violate their duties, replace them."

I agree. The "principle" is that in each case we ought to "weigh the actual costs and actual benefits and try to determine whether, on balance, all things considered, the sale is a good idea."