an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Deaccession Digressions in NY Times: What Matters, What Doesn&#146t

In her Thursday NY Times piece, The Permanent Collection May Not Be So Permanent, Robin Pogrebin constructs a straw man and then knocks it down: She mentions several museums that have recently put works up for sale and observes:

A few years ago sales like these were likely to have gone unnoticed. Yet
deaccessioning—the art world term for selling pieces from a museum’s
collection—has become a dirty word and the focus of increasingly
intense attention.

Actually, most of the sales that she mentioned—by the Cleveland Museum, the Getty and the Art Institute of Chicago—have gone largely unnoticed, even in these deaccession-sensitive times. That’s because even the “deaccession police” (like me) recognize that carefully considered disposals of works of inferior quality or relative insignificance can be part of responsible collections management.

The most important of the recent sales Pogrebin mentioned that HAS been unfavorably noticed (by Lita Solis-Cohen in the Maine Antique Digest and then by me) are the recently completed and upcoming sales by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (which I assume is what Robin really meant when she referred to the “Pennsylvania Museum of Fine Arts”). In this case, historic works by established names was being sacrificed for the new and trendy.

What’s strange is that, with the exception of the National Academy’s sales of two major Hudson River School paintings to pay for operating expenses and debts, and the Rose Art Museum’s now suspended plans to sell some or all of its collection to help solve Brandeis University’s financial problems, Robin failed to mention widely publicized recent deaccession controversies that have, in fact, caused great artworld concern: Fisk University’s ongoing attempt to sell a half-share of its Stieglitz Collection to Alice Walton‘s Crystal Bridges in order to ease the school’s financial difficulties; deaccessions of important works for a similar purpose by the Maier Museum at Randolph College in Virginia; the New York Public Library’s sales of major paintings—most notably Asher B. Durand‘s “Kindred Spirits,” which was bought by Crystal Bridges.

Pogrebin quotes Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, as an authority on deaccessions, but fails to mention that one of the most deplorable disposals in recent times occurred on his watch—the sale of a seminal Cubist Picasso, which left MoMA with only a fractional interest in another comparable work.

Notwithstanding what Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum, told Pogrebin about his museum’s acquisition of a Marsden Hartley portrait (funded by selling other Hartleys it regarded as “secondary”), I believe that museums should not be selling “A” works to get an “A+” work. That’s what donors and acquisition endowments are for.

What belongs in the public domain should stay in the public domain.

an ArtsJournal blog