Like cicadas, elected officials seem to follow a periodical cycle: driven by some hidden biological cue, on a regular basis around the country one group of councillors or another will be found mooting selling off star artworks from the municipal gallery to fund its activities, or support infrastructure and operational costs elsewhere in council. On an equally biological level, these threats trigger an allergic reaction amongst the staff at the institution concerned, and around the country. The spectre of forced deaccessioning strikes at the heart of our sector's commitment to permanency, history, and public service.
However, deaccessioning - the considered removal of a work or object from a museum's permanent collection - shouldn't be a taboo topic. The Museums Aotearoa Code of Ethics states that it is the responsibility of every institution to have a clear policy on collection development, care, and deaccessioning, and the corresponding responsibility of the governing body to ensure funds raised from approved deaccessioning are invested back into the collection. Reasons for deaccessioning a work might include that it is irretrievably damaged, that it has no relevance to the wider collection or mission of the organisation, or that the museum should not have accessioned the item in the first place; "raising money" is not one of the criteria. These statements are replicated by museum associations around the world. They emerge from a concern that incompetent or short-sighted governance bodies will shore up shaky finances by plundering public collections - the bodies of work built up to represent and make freely available a population's cultural heritage and stories.
A complex debate has been running in the United States for the past year over the decision by the trustees of Massachusetts' Berkshire Museum to sell 40 artworks in a bid to raise US$55M, to alleviate a budget deficit and invest in an expansion that would direct the museum further away from art and more emphatically into science. The legal battle went all the way to the state's Supreme Judicial Court; the sales have gone ahead through public auction at Sotheby's and private treaty. The Association of Art Museum Directors has censured the museum, and imposed sanctions that prevent other members from cooperating with the museum on loans and other activities.
Things are considerably more sunny in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where earlier this year the Philbrook Museum of Art deaccessioned a single 18th century Chinese porcelain vase, donated in the 1960s and only rarely displayed; it was sold in a special one-lot sale at Christie's for US$14.5million. Philbrook director Scott Stulen said the proceeds would be placed in a restricted fund, to be used for the acquisition of "potentially .... hundreds of other artworks".
And in Baltimore, the Baltimore Museum of Art has undertaken a strategic and highly publicised act of deaccessioning, deaccessioning seven 20th century works by white male artists, to create funds dedicated to acquiring works by women and artists of colour. More than US$7.5M was generated by the sale of works by Warhol, Kline, Rauschenberg and others that curators deemed could be spared from the collection; the first round of resulting acquisitions has just been announced, including pieces by Jack Whitten, Amy Sherald and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. In a recent op-ed for Frieze, BMA director Christopher Bedford described this as a "aggressive but responsible deaccessioning process", that would "provide the war chest necessary to correct the canon looking back, and allow us to buy without compromise the most important work being made today". Bedford also noted the often jubilant press coverage of the decision to sell works by deceased white artists in order to buy new work by artists of colour; he described this as "true, but only partially by design ... a function of history and testament to the prejudice that has structured museum collecting, that of the BMA as well as most institutions".
It is interesting to contrast reactions to these three actions. The Philbrook has been quite straightforward - a pot "languishing" in the collection has been released to enrich the wider collection: it's hard not to think "You lucky buggers, I wish I had one of those". The BMA example has raised angst from some commentators, but largely been embraced as the action of a woke 21st century museum. The Berkshire Museum meanwhile has been roundly and bitingly condemned - although one could argue that shoring up finances, keeping the doors open, and pivoting to science in order to better serve the needs of its community is actually a more necessary and meaningful goal than adding more items to a collection store.
I often reflect that we as the museum sector makes up our own rules. We might feel like they're graven in marble, but actually, they're relatively new and far from immutable. Rather than waiting in quiet fear for a group of councillors to turn their roving eyes upon our collection stores, perhaps it's time to look to American institutions and how they are taking (or losing) control of the deaccessioning narrative, in order to develop our own practice.