NEW YORK. Does selling a work betray the mission of a museum? This is the question that is stirring the industry in the United States one year after the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) decided to allow institutes to sell their premium prices in order to compensate for the revenue lost due to the pandemic. However, many museums have taken advantage of the suspension of the “deaccessioning” ban, valid until April 2022, to diversify their collections. What was born as an emergency measure to cover expenses has therefore opened up a market that many consider incompatible with the role that museums have within the community, which is to preserve their treasures for the public.
Many museums have been forced to sell some masterpieces for survival reasons, in line with the philosophy behind the choice of the AAMD. This is the case of the Brooklyn Museum which, already in economic difficulties before the pandemic, last September put 12 works on the market, including a Monet and two Dubuffets, in search of funds for the maintenance of the collection. Instead, part of the sum that one of the most important institutes in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will obtain from the sale of some works, in some cases owned in several copies, will be used to pay the staff.
Max Hollein, director of the Met, downplayed the impact of the operation. “American institutions have been practicing ‘deaccessioning’ for decades – Hollein told the France Presse agency – we are very experienced in doing so, we believe in it and we believe that the development of our collection benefits from it”. More unscrupulous the policy of minor subjects such as the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, which last October sold a Pollock for 12 million dollars, reinvesting the proceeds in the purchase of other works. One move amounted to “selling one’s soul” for the Wall Street Journal, on whose columns the columnist Terry Teachout had lashed out against the real structure of «using the laudable objective of financing a more diversified collection as an excuse to betray the trust of the public». “It is really worrying when the art on the walls turns into a financial activity”, underlined Laurence Esisenstein, the lawyer who led the revolt against the leaders of the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), forced to back down on the sale of three important works, including a Warhol. The goal of the transaction, in the days of Black Lives Matter, was to rebalance the collection with a greater number of works by African Americans, who make up nearly 63% of the city’s population.
Faced with strong criticism, the director of BMA, Christopher Bedford, then decided to organize a fundraiser for this purpose. Nonetheless, Bedford believes it will be difficult for museums to diversify collections if the rules on “decommissioning” do not change steadily. “We are slipping into irrelevance because we refuse to update our patterns of thought and action,” Bedford told France Presse.
According to Eisenstein, however, a museum that sells too many works risks losing the financial support of donors and authorities, who would stop considering it a non-profit institution. “At this point it would become very difficult for museums to become faithful and trusted custodians of cultural heritage in the United States,” the lawyer warned. The Met has also made opening up to minorities a priority but believes that the correct path is to turn to donors. “We are not using our current collection to achieve these goals,” explained Hollein. If the Anglo-Saxon cultural world sees “deaccessioning” with less hostility than its Latin counterparts (Serge Lasvignes, president of the Pompidou Center in Paris expressed “doubts about the validity of the path” started in the US), Great Britain has chosen the path of intervention public.
On Friday the London government announced the allocation of 400 million pounds (about 470 million euros) in subsidies to the world of culture. The funding is just part of the £ 1.5 billion Culture Recovery Fund that Downing Street has put in place to help a sector annihilated by the pandemic. Among the 2,700 organizations that will receive the aid there will be not only museums but also the Glastonbury Music Festival, the Royal Shakespeare Company and a large number of independent cinemas and theaters. The fund «has already helped thousands of cultural organizations to survive the greatest crisis they have ever faced -, commented the Minister of Culture, Oliver Dowden -. Now we are at their side as they prepare to welcome the public again ». A reopening that will not arrive before May 17 but, presumably, will anticipate continental Europe by a lot.