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$40-Million Collection-Care Goal: Brooklyn Museum’s 1st Round of Art Sales Under AAMD’s Relaxed Rules

Three months ago, a CultureGrrl tipster wrote to me that the Brooklyn Museum’s board was about to vote on proposed deaccessions of seven works (which he identified by type, but not by specific objects), for a “combined total value of $50 million.” (The tipster never identified himself to me, and I did not report his unconfirmed information at that time.)

Now, the Brooklyn Museum and Christie’s have announced plans (as reported last week by Robin Pogrebin in the NY Times) to sell 12 works in next month’s sales of European art and old masters. None of those works (listed here with complete catalogue information) matched the descriptions on my tipster’s list. The total low-to-high presale estimate for the group is $2.3-3.5 million, according to a Christie’s spokesperson, who told me that the 12 lots will be distributed among two live sales on Oct. 15 and two online sales, Oct. 1-20.

Here’s the top lot among the Brooklyn consignments:

Lucas Cranach, “Lucretia,” ca. 1525-mid 1530s
Presale estimate: $1.2-1.8 million

What’s unusual about these sales is that the proceeds will be used “to support museum collections” (in the words of Christie’s catalogue), not to acquire other works, as required by the Association of Art Museum Directors’ previously ironclad deaccession guidelines (p. 21). Last April, AAMD temporarily loosened those strictures (for a period of two years), in response to the Virus Crisis.

In my analysis of those changes, I reluctantly supported them:

Daily reports of museums in dire straits point to the undeniable necessity of these regrettable measures. That said, the danger of the “slippery slope” cannot be overstated.

Until April 10, 2022, AAMD will not censure its members for using art-sale proceeds “to support the direct care of the museum’s collection”—a standard consistent with the American Alliance of Museums’ Code of Ethics for collections, which states that sale proceeds can be used only for “acquisition or direct care of collections” [emphasis added].

Anne Pasternak, the Brooklyn Museum’s director (and a member of AAMD), had told the Times’ Pogrebin that good candidates for deaccession were works that “have not been shown ever or for decades.” But Christie’s catalogue reveals that one of Brooklyn’s castoffs—Courbet‘s “Bords de la Loue avec Rochers à Gauche,” 1868—had an extensive exhibition history as part of a Brooklyn show that traveled widely from 2007 to 2012—Landscapes from the Age of Impressionism:

Gustave Courbet, “Bords de la Loue avec Rochers à Gauche,” 1868
Presale estimate: $400,000-600,000

According to the Brooklyn Museum’s own description, its traveling “Landscapes” show consisted of “many of the finest examples of mid-19th through early 20th-century French and American landscape in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection.” The above Courbet river scene had a noteworthy pedigree: It came from the fabled collection of Louisine Havemeyer and was given to the Brooklyn Museum in 1941 by a Havemeyer descendant.

As required under AAMD’s temporarily loosened deaccession strictures, Brooklyn has posted on its website “a board-approved policy outlining what expenses it considers as direct care.” The museum’s Direct Care of the Collection Policy lists these activities as appropriate uses for deaccession proceeds under the new rules:

(A) creating a proper environment for storing and displaying artwork to protect it from damage and deterioration; (B) conserving artwork to restore and/or maintain its physical condition; (C) researching the history of an artwork to identify and understand appropriate conservation methods for the work; (D) documenting the condition of an artwork for archival purposes to help inform conservation requirements for the current and future preservation of the work; and (E) taking appropriate measures for the safe installation, de-installation, and transport of an artwork in a manner that safeguards the physical condition of the work.

That said, I came across language on p. 40 of the Brooklyn Museum’s Form 990 tax return for the Fiscal 2019 (ending June 30 of that year) suggesting that the use of deaccession proceeds for “direct care” was established policy at that museum, even before the AAMD guidelines were relaxed:

Deaccession funds…are used to acquire other items for the collection and direct care [emphasis added].

Brooklyn’s disposals may serve as a role model for other financially pressed art museums, because it’s a pioneer on this new trail: Last Thursday, I asked Christine Anagnos, AAMD’s executive director, whether Brooklyn was the only member of the association that had thus far availed itself of the relaxed standards.

“To my knowledge, today, yes,” she replied.

This is just the beginning of the Brooklyn Museum’s extended selling spree: “There will be more deaccessions, as part of our larger strategy to generate a permanent and restricted $40-million ‘Collections Care Fund,’ but it is undetermined as to what and when [emphasis added],” Taylor Maatman, the museum’s director of public relations, told me.

She added:

The Collection Care initiative is cross-departmental, with input from curators in all departments, as well as conservation, registrar, executive leadership, and the Board of Trustees, who have voted unanimously for the deaccessions presented thus far….

Soon we will be recommending deaccessions from decorative arts, modern, Arts of Asia, and more. Pending board approval for this, there will be further deaccessions, but nothing more yet is confirmed….

[The $40-million goal] is based on a conservative accounting of our annual direct-care costs of $2 million—a conservative cost for a museum of our size and stature for maintaining and caring for the collection in the most direct ways possible, such as proper storage, conservation, framing. From a $40-million fund, we can draw 5% annually, or $2 million.

At another point, Maatman told me that Brooklyn hopes to raise “at least $40 million [emphasis added]” from the sales. So it’s possible that $50 million—my tipster’s figure—is what they’re actually shooting for. Maatman wouldn’t say whether any of the currently “undetermined” deaccessions were among those foreseen by my mysterious source.

For what it’s worth (or not), here’s the item that topped the tipster’s list:

“Two lesser Monets”

And in other Brooklyn Museum news, it was just chosen as one of 12 U.S. institutions to receive a portion of the $24 million in inaugural grants being awarded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Art Museum Futures Fund, which will provide emergency financial infusions to help mid-sized museums weather the pandemic’s economic challenges.

I’m not sure by what criteria (other than anemic finances) the sprawling, encyclopedic Brooklyn Museum qualifies as “mid-sized,” but every little bit helps.

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