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Museum Admissions, Deaccessions: Let’s Get Real

I have not waded into either of the debates that are raging across the art museum world at the moment. So far, I’ve avoided commenting on the deaccessions planned by the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass., which has been tied up in the court system for months, and the LaSalle University Art Museum in Philadelphia, which has enraged the art world. And I’ve not said anything about the Met’s new admissions policy either.

The explanation–two cliches. First, it’s deju vu all over again. Second, quoting Shakespeare, “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”

Neither explanation means that I agree with the decisions of these museums–though I have more nuanced views than some critics. But the question, really, is what can be done. In at least two cases, not much. So is outrage the right response? Each case is distinct.

The Met first: some people have muddled the issue with extraneous “arguments,” for example that David Koch’s donation to build the fountains out front should not have been accepted but should instead have been used to cover admissions. I wrote here in 2014 that they were a mistake–but the mistake was the museum’s, not Koch’s. To cite him as the villain here–partly because most of the art world disagrees with his politics–is not helpful. Donations to museums by people with strong political views–yes, those you disagree with–are necessary, and those kinds of comments will only make matters worse. Besides, givers have every right to decide how they want their money used; it then becomes the museum’s decision whether or not to accept. Period, full stop.

Here’s another fallacy regarding the Met’s policy: that admissions fees are keeping people away. Well, yes and no. As the research cited by this article in ArtNet indicates–and other research I am familiar with–fees are not the main issue here. Focusing on them distracts museums from the bigger issues, which involve peer group perceptions, lack of education, misunderstanding about what to expect in a museum, and much more.

Second, the deaccessions: I believe in the end that the Berkshire Museum will, unfortunately, get a go-ahead from the courts. The problem there began when trustees changed the mission statement, moving away from art and more toward history and natural science. I’ll bet that decision, too, was made because art can be a hard sell (especially when trustees have a cursory knowledge of how to change that) and the trustees/director wanted high visitor numbers. The rewriting process they used seemed to lack transparency and community involvement, but–sorry to say–I don’t believe that is illegal.

LaSalle is more egregious–selling art to fund other aspects of a university’s operations. LaSalle is a member of the American Alliance of Museums, which has condemned the sale along with the Association of Art Museum Directors (of which it is not a member), and they have begun talks. Persuasion–or a revolt by donors and alumni, as happened with the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis a few years back–is the only tool available right now. I hope for the best but have my doubts that it will work.

Most unhelpful at this time was Glenn Lowry’s comment to Charlotte Burns on her podcast on Jan. 11. He said:

I have very strong opinions about de-accessioning…I don’t believe you should de-accession to fund operating costs. I think that is a categoric mistake.

But I do believe that one should de-accession rigorously in order to either acquire more important works of art or build endowments to support programming. Because for me, in the end, it’s all about being sufficiently well-capitalized to program intelligently and to have as few works of art in storage as possible. It doesn’t benefit anyone when there are millions of works of art that are languishing in storage. …we would be far better off, in my opinion, allowing others to have those works of art that might enjoy them, but even more importantly, converting that to endowed funds that could support public programs, exhibitions, publications.

…there isn’t a single museum in this country—and I put The Museum of Modern Art in that—that is doing a great job of programming, because we don’t have the resources to do that. What we should be doing should be ten times what we’re currently doing.

I’m glad he opposes deaccessioning to fund operations, that he agrees that collections should be shared with less-well-off museums (something I have written here many times), and that museums should (try to) do more programming.

But what I fear about his deaccessioning endorsement is that we will have more Albright-Knox examples–selling off the old to buy the new. Rather, as many museum directors have told me, museums should be deaccessioning many of the mistakes they made acquiring 20th century and maybe even 21st century art, decisions influenced by market forces rather than curatorial judgment. (Just try separating them!).

But museums won’t do that for fear of offending living artists and/or living collectors, who may be donors now or some day.

That would take real courage.

In the meantime, I fear that Lowry’s comments will be misused by those who do not understand museums to allow cases like LaSalle.




  1. Kirk de Gooyer says

    Thank you Judith for giving the time needed to consider each of these topics separately and not conflate as a single story for each case is unique. I too was most surprised and disappointed in Lowry’s comments as the nuance between his not supporting using the sale of artworks to cover operating expenses and supporting endowment most likely will be lost. I am deeply disturbed by the rash of articles and social media conversations wishing to monetize permanent collections and clear out storage to balance the budget.

  2. For me the problem with de-accessioning is that if the purchaser is a private collector, then we the public — not just the public who live in the town where the art happens at the time to be located, but the public as a whole — lose our opportunity to view the art. Museum organizations should recognize that there is a huge difference between de-accessioning to individuals and de-accessioning to other museums. The latter should be permitted, the former not, regardless of what the de-accessioning museum wants to do with the money it makes.

  3. Christopher Crosman says

    I completely agree with your comments about current museum deaccessioning plans and Glenn Lowry’s “un-helpful” (to use a Paul Ryan-ism) take on the subject. Yes, there are legitimate reasons to remove objects from permanent collections but generating funds to “improve” a collection is not among the more compelling reasons in the view of people who understand just how subjective and fraught this process can be. Like many involved with contemporary art, Lowry seemingly forgets that (art) history has the final say. The arrogance of curators and directors who believe they know more and have better aesthetic judgement than their predecessors is often proven over time, if not in the moment. Unwanted art works are often the proverbial sleeping dog that bites, especially the hand that formerly fed it. You are right to cite the egregious example of the Albright-Knox (where I worked as an educator for 11 years). That collection was among the best teaching collections in the nation before their ill-advised deaccessioning program. I distinctly recall their small but choice holdings of antiquities, medieval, Chinese, Southeast Asian and Central American examples that we routinely used to explain and justify change and continuity in contemporary art–the drips and poured pigment on a Tang dynasty ceramic figure vis Pollock’s “Convergence” or even Johns’s “Numbers in Color”; a 12th century Champleve enamel Eucharistic dove that spoke volumes about the direct spiritual connections to Gauguin’s magisterial “Yellow Christ.” The exquisite Roman bronze of Diana and the Stag (among only a handful of such works in American museums) was exhibited at the Met before it disappeared into a European collection. I could go on for weeks. The point being that the rather modest proceeds from deaccessioning, especially if used to bolster contemporary art acquisitions is–to use another catch phrase proving the truth of many cliches–a fool’s errand. I don’t recall the precise amount generated by the Albright’s selling spree but I suspect it would not have covered even one significant work by Warhol or, god forbid, a questionable Koons. Collections are the reason museums exist (those that collect, at any rate) and while funding for American museums has long been a complex dilemma based on their origins and continued existence so fundamentally tied to private donors, collections, even those in storage, serve to tell stories of institutional evolution including how taste itself has never been a fixed matter. And, it is important to recognize that collections, even neglected ones, often become touchstones for important research shedding new light on both the old and new. Like it or not, boards and museum staff members need to get used to the idea that they hold objects in trust for the public–not just today’s public but they are responsible to future generations and need to incorporate the mantra of the medical and conservation professions: do no harm or at least nothing that cannot be reversed. Lowry’s notion about getting works of art out of storage is laudable. But works that are “owned” by the public–based on non-profit tax preferences and longstanding tradition–should not be treated like museum ATM card assets. At the very least, museums should inaugurate lending programs to benefit sister institutions throughout the country where new audiences can enjoy art that would otherwise not be accessible and new ideas about why they might be important in a new or different context.

  4. The Berkshire Museum is selling the best of their art collection, not basement rejects. That is the problem. Moma is not about to sell their best Picasso to fund their current expansion.
    Plus, as is not the case in these sales, simple transparency would go a long way in terms of community acceptance.

  5. You’ve completely missed the mark on the berkshire museum, your cursory overview ignores the facts for just a quick whitewash of the issue. The museum is not looking to increase attendance, in fact the director specifically stated that they looked at the change as revenue neutral. This is really an issue of selling art so as not to fundraise, nothing more. This is using art as a fungible asset, nothing more. It’s not in the name of getting more people in, it’s in hopes of not having to do any work ever again when it comes to outreach or fundraising.

    • Perhaps my shorthand was too short for you; however, your comment adds to the confusion. While the long statement provided to the press by the museum did not explicitly state increased attendance as a goal, it certainly implied that as a goal with such phrases as “We have worked tirelessly over the last two years to ensure the future survival and relevance of our beloved Berkshire Museum…” and “Static museum galleries will be transformed into active teaching laboratories…By inspiring curiosity and wonder in its audiences, the Museum will continue to nurture the social, cultural, and economic development of Pittsfield and the Berkshires.” And so on.

      It’s also incorrect to assume that an increase in attendance will lead to an increase in revenues or, better, earned income. The gate brings in only a small proportion of revenues at most museums–say, 10%–and most museums that have expanded have found that their increased costs exceeded their increased gate. So a “revenue-neutral” plan is not inconsistent with increased attendance.

      You have hit the nail on the head, however, by saying that the museum does not want to fundraise to ensure the realization of its vision, which downgrades art in favor of science and natural history. That’s a pretty lazy step considering that the board’s statement also included this quote in its release: “Pittsfield’s economy is on the rise, and we know that arts and culture is a driving force behind that,” says State Senator Adam G. Hinds (D- Pittsfield). “Cultural attractions help to revitalize downtowns in Pittsfield, North Adams, and elsewhere. The Berkshire Museum is a cornerstone of that effort.”

      • Peter Dudek says

        Real visitor numbers are unlikely to increase. Dumping the best art means fewer art visitors. The science focus is on children and school groups which are on the decline in the Berkshires. Another school recently closed in Pittsfield.

  6. Thanks Judy for a reasonable and reasoned statement on this topic where most comments so far sound like the world is coming to an end. It is also true that we do not subsidize our museums or exhibitions except in the most perfunctory manner. Just like in our schools the arts are the first to go and if the private sector does not take the reins funds have to come from somewhere or the doors have to be closed and who does that serve.

    I like Philippe de Montebello’s comment years ago when a department at the Met was considering a deaccession. He said it would take a unanimous agreement to let a work of art go but only one to object.

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