Saturday, February 20, 2021

"The Museum approaches deaccessioning with the same degree of strategy and deliberation as we apply to acquisitions."

Met director Max Hollein has a very good piece at the museum's website defending the position they've taken on deaccessioning, and also an interesting interview with Brian Boucher at artnet.

Some highlights from the latter:

  • He makes the point that museums sell work all the time and no one bats an eye: "I think that sometimes even people from the field on purpose neglect the reality that museums have been involved in deaccessioning for decades. It’s not new. So this is something we can handle professionally. To suddenly say that it might be inappropriately handled, I think there’s a bit of a disconnect in that argument. I understand if criticism like that came from outside the U.S., but this is how museums have been practicing in the U.S. all along."
  • On the works that would be sold: "We’re not talking about masterpieces. These are sometimes works on paper that are duplicates, or photographs that we own in multiples. And we don’t deaccession works by living artists."
  • And he points out that "what we are considering doing, for this limited time period, is to actually allocate the funds that were already being generated from deaccessioning toward collection care and new funds being generated through our deaccessioning program, for this limited time period, not toward new acquisitions but toward collection care, meaning salaries and related costs of our employees who take care of the collection, such as conservators, mount makers, and collection managers. That’s the one change" (my emphasis).
I think this last point is crucial. Even the harshest critics of the plan admit that "deaccessioning is a routine activity of art collection management." The Met does it every year, and has an established process in place (this is from Hollein's piece):

"The criteria for deaccessioning works in the collection have been consistent for decades and include: (1) the work does not further the mission of the Museum; (2) the work is redundant or a duplicate; (3) the work is of lesser quality than other objects of the same type in the collection; and (4) the work lacks sufficient aesthetic merit or historical importance to warrant retention. The Met deaccessions works annually, resulting in revenue that varies between as little as $45,000 to as much as $25 million, driven by the wide range of values assigned to specific pieces and different media. In recent years, for example, we deaccessioned decorative arts from The American Wing, women’s night and dressing wear from the Costume Institute, and two works from European Paintings. Each object was subject to review by curators and conservators as well as the administrative staff and trustees, as outlined above. This process takes a number of months for each item."

OK, so now they've gone through this rigorous process and have arrived at a group of works that they've decided to sell as part of their (routine) art collection management. My question is (and always has been): At that point, what difference does it make what you do with the money? Yes, of course, it has to be for a legitimate institutional purpose, but assuming that's the case, who cares how the money is spent? The works are being sold anyway. It's never made any sense to me.