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Delaware Art Museum’s Deaccession Debacle: The Impotence of AAMD

Poster of Winslow Homer's "Milking Time," 1876, being sold by Delaware Art Museum's shop

Possible Deaccession? Poster of Winslow Homer’s “Milking Time,” 1875, being sold by Delaware Art Museum’s shop. The original is no longer on collection website.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The time has come for the passage of legislation to bar museums from monetizing important collection objects that are in the public domain and should stay there.

The recent examples of the sale of art from Randolph College’s Maier Museum and planned sales from the Delaware Art Museum demonstrate, once again, that censures and sanctions from the Association of Art Museum Directors are powerless to prevent deplorable deaccessions of museum-quality artworks that are held in public trust. Some attorneys general have tried to combat this pernicious practice. Most don’t seem to care.

Museums have always preferred self-policing to government intervention. But self-policing hasn’t worked. As Danielle Rice, former director of the Delaware Art Museum, lamented in this CultureGrrl Q&A, museums running afoul of the AAMD’s professional standards regarding art sales endure “the usual brouhaha and sanctions, and…get over it….In the end, as with the National Academy [my links, not hers], you’ve got the money in the bank.” Rice was strongly opposed to the action taken by the Delaware museum after she left for another job last August.

In an Op-Ed piece Saturday for the Wilmington News Journal, Timothy Rub, AAMD’s president, called for “a spirited public debate” on whether the Delaware Art Museum should go ahead with its planned disposals to pay off its expansion debt and beef up the endowment. His essay was a last-ditch attempt to counter the viewpoint express in the newspaper’s own editorial and another Op-Ed piece by Elva Ferrari-Graham, president of the Delaware Art Museum’s board of trustees.

Rub expressed disappointment with the museum’s decision “not to disclose publicly the works of art that will be deaccessioned until after they are sold,” which he said was “clearly intended to forestall criticism.” He also called attention to the fact that Winslow Homer‘s “Milking Time,” 1875, “one of the Museum’s greatest treasures, is no longer listed in ‘Collections’ section” of the Delaware museum’s website.

Like Rub, I couldn’t find the Homer on the collections website, but I did find a poster of it being sold for $15 by the museum’s shop. I also found a framed reproduction of it featured in the museum’s 2012 Art is Everywhere program—a pop-up campaign throughout the state. Unlike the just announced Art Everywhere program, wherein reproductions of art from five major U.S. museums will be enlarged for display on billboards, Delaware’s initiative featured faithful replicas of some of the Museum’s most beloved paintings” [emphasis added], including the Homer that Rub suggests may now be slated for sale.

This is another sad case of what I have called “off-the-wall deaccessions”—art jettisoned not from storage but from the “permanent” collection galleries where it is customarily on view. Mike Miller, the museum’s CEO, “said at least three of the four works that could be sold are on display” in the museum, according to Margie Fishman‘s News Journal report.

The more that museums thumb their noses at AAMD standards, the more that others will be tempted to do so, as an easy solution to their financial challenges. In her above-linked conversation with me, Danielle Rice asserted that alternatives to selling had been insufficiently explored by her former institution, notwithstanding the deaccession-or-die claims of the museum’s current leadership.

Rice also expressed a fear that I believe will prove prophetic, unless attorneys general or legislators promptly take forceful action:

What’s so scary about this situation is that it has the potential of causing a huge domino effect.

The unrepentant (and resurgent) National Academy, the Maier, Delaware…who’s next? And what can the AAMD do to stop this momentum? Perhaps the professional community is still feverishly working on this behind the scenes. Maybe local and state philanthropy will at last be energized.

Is there yet time to save “Milking Time”?

an ArtsJournal blog