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Tacoma Goofed. What’s The Deaccessioning Lesson?

We all make mistakes. The Tacoma Art Museum, I believe, just made a big one — and since it’s about deaccessioning, it’s worth some examination.

iLbG3.St.5As chronicled in the Tacoma News-Tribune, the art sales in question began because a few years back the Tacoma museum decided to refocus on Northwest art. In its collection was a cache of Qing dynasty robes, scroll paintings and silk purses, and 41 pieces of jade jewelry.  The collection, described as “richly embroidered…silk jackets, robes and skirts” and “jade items varied from shades of green to white and yellow, many exquisitely carved” had been exhibited at the museum a couple of times and the jade had once been on permanent display. The items had been donated by a Chinese-American couple, named Young, in 1976, and they were supposedly valued recently at about $70,000. 

But when a third of the trove was sold recently at Bonham’s, bringing $230,000, museum officials were ecstatic, but eyebrows went up elsewhere.

The descendants of the Youngs had been notified before the sale, and they apparently agreed to it (the museum had sold some of the jade  in the 1990s without consulting the family). The money from this sale was to be used to buy works by Northwest Chinese -American artists.

But the family had been told the items were in poor condition plus, they learned after the sale, the museum’s website had once labeled them as not-of-museum-quality. If so, why the high prices? Other discrepancies, such as an incomplete inventory and exaggerated talk of trying to place the items with other museum, contributed to the mess. They led to charges by the Youngs of cultural disrespect and lack of appreciation for the Chinese presence in the northwest since the 1800s. A group is now trying to halt the sale of the rest of the Young collection, which is set for March 12.

121RMZ.St.5That’s an incomplete summary of a long article that you can read here.

What should the Tacoma museum have done? For one, it’s unclear to me whether or not the Young collection fits the new mission, which neither defines Northwest art nor limits it to a certain period. Here’s what it says:

Tacoma Art Museum serves the diverse communities of the Northwest through its collection, exhibitions, and learning programs, emphasizing art and artists from the Northwest. Our vision is to be a national model for regional museums by creating a dynamic museum that engages, inspires, and builds community through art.

True, the art involved was not made in the Northwest, but “emphasizing”  does not exclude art made elsewhere, especially if it “serves the diverse communities.”
Second, it does sound — if the Youngs are to be believed, and they are not contradicted by the museum on several points — as if the descendents were not given full information before they acquiesed to the sale. That’s always a bad policy — the coverup is usually worse than the crime.
Third, when a museum changes its mission — and one hopes that is not too often — I do believe it is incumbent upon the museum to place the collections that no longer fit at other public institutions — even if the only possible arrangement is a long-term loan. That was not done in this case.
The museum says it will lose money if it stops the sale; it should have thought about that before consigning.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Bonham’s, via the Tacoma News-Tribune

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