Is there an ethical case against deaccessioning by museums? Updated

In response to a post by blog neighbor Lee Rosenbaum on proposed sales of works by the Berkshire Museum and the Lasalle University Art Museum, I asked via Twitter whether there was a coherent case to be made that deaccessioning is unethical, and not simply (sometimes) a case of bad management and oversight, or indeed sometimes simply a rational and defensible adjustment to changes in circumstances and/or mission. Ms. Rosenbaum replied to me on Twitter saying “deaccessioning is not unethical. Certain kinds of deaccessioning are unethical”, and with an article from the New York Times she wrote back in 2005. I need more than 280 characters to respond, so…

Let me start with where I think we agree. Sometimes, sales of art have come about because the museum has not done sound long term financial planning, has overcommitted itself, and is reaching for a safety net. That is bad management and oversight, and is rightly criticized. Norms against deaccessioning might induce management to take more care, and reduce this case of moral hazard.

I think we also agree that sometimes museum leadership might be pursuing something new for its own sake, and be placing too low a value on long-held art works enjoyed by patrons, and too high a value on new infrastructure or new works of art. She writes (in the Times column):

Curators use such sales to bankroll their shopping sprees. Major building projects accelerate this trend. As cultural institutions expand and modernize, they not only seek to outdo one another by commissioning the eye-popping or suavely elegant work of superstar architects, but also hope to redecorate their shiny new edifices with some appropriately breathtaking acquisitions. Since donors are already tapped out by the capital campaign, the collection becomes an irresistible source of financing for flashy new trophies.

Now it’s a rare thing when I say, regarding museum policy, that someone is maybe being overly conservative, but I will in this case: I’m not sure we can generalize this far when it comes to building projects, some of which really are justified, and to finance new acquisitions, which I’ve always understood to be a generally accepted (perhaps the only generally accepted) rationale for selling works.

Where do we disagree? She writes:

If an institution really has no use for certain works that are worthy of public display, it should give or lend them to other public institutions that would gladly show them. Museums’ permanent collections belong to all of us. The public has, in most instances, paid for these works through the tax deductions given to private donors. And those donors bestow such works on the public expecting them to be valued for their aesthetic, not financial worth. If a museum doesn’t regard a particular gift as worthy of display or study, it shouldn’t accept the gift in the first place.

There’s a lot in this paragraph; let’s break it down:

“Museums’ permanent collections belong to all of us” is not true in any meaningful sense. Nonprofit museums are independent entities, and I have no claim on their works, any more than I have claims on the assets of any other organization. It is sentiment, but nothing more than that.

That there were tax deductions to the donors does not change matters. All donations, cash or in kind, to registered nonprofits receive a tax deduction, but that doesn’t mean the organization surrenders the control of its assets to “all of us.” The tax policy in place with respect to charitable donations is designed to encourage donations to charity, but does not imply any general public say in the management of assets.

Do donors expect works to be valued for their aesthetic, not financial worth? Sometimes, maybe. A couple of years ago I was moving house, and ended up donating a couple of van-loads worth of books to my school library and local public library. They might put some on the shelf, and they might sell some where they think they could use the money to acquire books better suited to the library’s purpose. I don’t care – I just want to help out my library, and they can use my donation as it best benefits the library mission. I don’t see a moral difference between a gift of $500,000 cash to a museum and the gift of a work of art that doesn’t really fit its mission or collection but could yield $500,000 at sale that could be used on other purchases that would fit its mission. A donor could say “I insist that you never sell this work, for any reason”, I suppose. But I would want to ask that donor: Why?

And as to the final point: my impression in most deaccessioning cases is not that a gift was accepted that the museum didn’t find worthy, but rather that it was once worthy but that circumstances have changed. Must any work accepted be held in perpetuity?

And so in the end my ask for an article that gives a persuasive moral case that “certain kinds of deaccessioning is unethical” has not been met. I don’t see it in the Berkshire case she is now covering.


A correspondent writes:

Neither of these really go to the core question of the “morality” or ethical basis for the strict museum association standards on deaccessioning, but might be worth taking into consideration.  First, the tax code does reflect some policy favoring the aesthetic as opposed to financial value of gifts of art by making a distinction that your blog doesn’t: a gift of tangible property, including art, to a nonprofit, is only entitled to a fair market value deduction if the gift is intended to be used, and is used, by the nonprofit, to further its nonprofit purposes, which does not include selling it to raise cash for nonprofit purposes.  If the property (an artwork, your books example, etc.) is given so that the nonprofit can sell it to raise cash (i.e., as a financial asset), the donor’s deduction is limited to her basis.

Another factor that often comes up in museum concerns about deaccessioning is that museums fought for a financial accounting policy that allows them to exclude the value of artworks in their collections from their balance sheets, the argument being that they are NOT financial assets available to be used for operations, capital or other purposes.  Whether realistic or not, there is fear that a widespread change in museum practice will result in a change in the accounting rule, requiring nonprofit museums to reflect billions of dollars on their balance sheets as assets – and unrestricted assets at that (unless donors have obtained contractual restrictions), which could have negative effects – contributing to what you identified as a moral hazard.  Boards of Trustees might be more inclined to look to collections rather than their own pockets to support capital projects; donors of cash might be less inclined to give if the organization’s financial statements and tax returns reflect billions of dollars in assets; and the presence of those assets in the financial statements might well mask serious financial weaknesses.



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  1. Not every work of art in a museum has been acquired in the same manner. Some, certainly, were donated to be cared for and (probably periodically) displayed. Those may or may not have been given with the legal caveat to be a permanent part of the collection; many aren’t. Some are donated for the express purpose of being sold to increase assets of any sort — whether it’s new art or cash money. And some are purchased by museums. These purchases may increase in value, perhaps greatly. And in any other type of organization (profit or non-) making a smart purchase and then monetizing that asset when it accrues more value would be lauded. I think Nina Simon was right in her recent call for a new look at deaccessioning, with a more sophisticated and realistic tier system.

  2. The argument over deaccessioning seems to me to have its roots in two contradictory views of the museum and its mission: the museum as archive and the museum as entertainment venue. The idea that museums should be repositories for the works of past civilization, preserving them even after they have gone out of fashion (as reminders of the tastes change over history) seems to some as obsolete as the idea of civilization itself. Today’s museums are overly concerned with staying “relevant”, appealing to young people with money, keeping the turnstiles clicking. Other museums, not to mention commercial art galleries and public parks, are seen as competitors in a marketplace rather than partners in a humanistic, educational enterprise.

    The Market has done its part to help muddy these waters by touting and driving up the investment value of museum-quality art, and blurring the distinction between contemporary art and old masters. The desire of museums to be au courant is drawing them into the thickets where value is too often driven by publicity, advertising, and the artist’s personality, where the museum is competing with millionaires and paying grossly inflated prices, rather than waiting for those millionaires to donate them once their place in art history has settled a bit.