In Hard Times Should Museums Be Allowed to Sell Their Artworks? by Dawoud Bey

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The Art Institute of Chicago
      "Art Institute of Chicago Lays Off 22 Employees," "Met Museum Lays Off 14% of Staff," "Detroit Institute Dismisses 56 Full-time and Seven Part-time Staff," "Spertus Cuts Its Hours to 2 1/2 Days A Month," "High Museum Lays Off 15 More Workers," and on and on it goes, across the country from one region to the next and from one institution to another. These are hard times for everyone and museums are no exception. Along with a growing string of layoffs museums across the country are also being forced to cancel or postpone exhibitions that have been on the drawing board in some cases for years. 
      Hard times are challenging museums to meet their fiscal obligations and remain solvent by any means necessary. In this climate it isn't difficult to imagine that some institutions are looking to the works on their walls (or more likely in the their collection vaults) as a possible solution to to their financial problems. Given that most most museums are only able to exhibit a very small number of the works that they have in their collections, can they be blamed for casting a wishful eye in the direction of their valued treasures as a way out of pressing circumstances? Those objects do belong to them don't they? Well, it's not as simple as that. Selling works from ones collection is a decision that no museum makes lightly and when they do it is supposed to be done under very stringent circumstances. Deaccessioning, defined as permanently removing a work from the collection of a museum,

is a complicated decision and one which is often fraught with all sorts of potential peril.

      This is true for a number of reasons. While it may seem simple on the face of it, deaccessioning raises a host of sticky legal and ethical questions. For one thing museums are public institutions. As such the artworks in them are presumed to be held in public trust and for the public's good and education. Additionally the works are most often donated or acquired with the financial assistance of trustees who attach stipulations or conditions to their gift. That usually doesn't include blanket permission to then turn around and sell the donated work (or work acquired with combined funds from trustees) to pay for the museum's air conditioning bill for example. If this were not the case most works of art would almost certainly not be donated to museums. There are also professional codes of conducts that museums agree to adhere to as publicly funded institutions. Deaccessioning is usually permissable only in cases where the object is in an extreme state of deterioration or there are duplicate or comparable objects (in the case of photographs and prints for example). There are other reasons, but even when these reasons are met deaccessioning funds secured by the sale of an art work is supposed are to be used only for the acquisition of other objects. And even when these conditions are met deaccessioning must first be approved by a committee within the museum and then further approved by the board of trustees. It isn't something akin to returning a now ill fitting or no longer desired item of clothing to the store for a refund. Nor is it akin, for that matter, to selling a privately held work of art at auction or privately from ones own personal collection.
      Recently in New York museum directors and administrators banded together to petition the New York State Legislature from making the existing deaccessioning laws even more stringent. The museum directors and administrators, including those from the Met, the Guggenheim, and the Whitney, were seeking to head off proposed enhanced deaccessioning legislation which was the result of severall recent prominent and controversial cases in which museum attempted or in fact did sell works from their collection in the face of economic pressures. Brandeis University for example threatened to sell off all 6,000 of the art works in its Rose Art Museum's collection in order to compensate for a steep drop in the college's endowment. Protests from Brandeis students and others resulted in at least a temporary suspension of this wholesale deaccessioning attempt.
      However one may feel about it, in the current fiscal climate there is sure to be ongoing controversy around this issue. What is to be done? Detroit Institute's director Graham Beal states, "If it were suddenly legitimate to sell artworks and use the proceeds for anything other than acquisitions there would be wholesale cannibalization of many museums." Yale School of Art dean and art historian Robert Storr has said of Brandeis's threatened sale of work from the Rose Art Museum, "They are throwing away one of their prime assets." In a recent interview in TIME magazine Art Institute director Jim Cuno said of deaccessioning, "We here have been very careful with deaccessioning. We do it very infrequently." 
      To sell or not to sell? What do you think?


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  • It's hard to say. It's kind of like the Tribune selling off the Cubs. It all depends on how unique you think the artwork makes you as a museum and how much value it adds to your institution.

    Then you have to ask the question of where to draw the line... where do you stop selling?

  • This is super interesting, but I think holding on the an asset because it is an asset makes it a liability. Over the past 20+ years Museums have decided that money was more important to the museums than art (I state this because most museum boards have less than 2 working artists on them). If you make a decision like that you have to stand by it sell the art for money and hopefully the people that buy it love art a little bit more and start to educate the public in a way museums haven't.

  • I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, every museum in the world could use more money. On the other hand they would be selling away the entire reason people go there in the first place. Its kind of sad that more people don't support the arts and visit museums and such more often (i'm guilty of it as well) but I think that it should be more about reminding people why they exist as opposed to selling off the artwork to pay the bills. A museum exists for many reasons, maybe they should tell us a few before they start selling their Monets.

  • SELL: keep people employed. The real artistry is fostering a budding art community, not hanging on to artifacts.

    I run a restaurant, Joey's Brickhouse. I've had to change my menu based on the reality of the neighborhood, the economy, or figuring out how to make a slow weekday worth coming in.

    Fine dining is my background. I'd love to be Mister Foo-Foo. But it's not the reality of the world we live in right now. As much as I'm committed to furthering my craft, I'm even more committed to employing my staff.

    At some point, we grow up. We have to learn to let go of our dreams. Just like museums have to learn to let go of a collection. But then you know what happens, space opens up.

    Not just on the walls...but in your mindset.

    The dream comes back to you better than you imagined at the start. Maybe the museum will buy back the collection at a future time, when things are more stable and the museum is flush.

    To fake it, to deny reality, is exactly how our country, our museums and my restaurant got into trouble in the first place. But trouble is an opportunity. What you do with the opportunity is art.

  • What I find interesting is about the way museums get art in the first place. If a collector donates an "uneven" collection(a nice way of saying some of it is junk), I assume the museum has to smile and say thank you, opposed to picking and choosing the pieces they actaully want. I also assume they have to insure it and store it?

    I read something about museums borrowing from private collections and galleries more and more, it helps them avoid the headaches and costs of owning the art.

    Also, history being the ultimate judge, I'm some of it is found to NOT be of museum-quality artists.

    You know what would be an interesting research piece? The storage system of the Art Institute. It's got to be mind-blowingly large. 90% of the Southeast Asian collection (not on display) was in storage, and in fact 90% of everything in the Modern Wing, the AI already owned....


  • With so much of the work in most museum's collection rarely ever seeing the light of day, there is no doubt that lurking among some of that work are some minor works, particularly in the case of encyclopedic museums like the Art Institute of Chicago or the Walters Art Museum who have works dating from centuries past. These works, of course, are NOT the works that the museums look to deaccession in times of need, since it would generate very little revenue on the open market. Given their minor status no one would care if they were sold or not. It is the deaccessioning of valuable so called "master works" that get the attention and creates the controversy.

  • Right. I would figure. And it seems like there has been some argument about which category deaccessioned works have fallen into.

    But I'm commenting with trivia, I can see the sites that link to us and, yes, there is a deaccessioning blog!

    ...simply committed to following the issue.

    This was a great post, Dawoud.

  • The other thing that seems like a larger issue about deaccessioning, is that, as you mention, Dawoud, we look to museums to hold objects in the "public trust". They store items in climate-controlled rooms, out of sunlight, etc. Once they're sold at auction to private owners.. well, they can burn them, frankly.

    So it makes me wonder if there is some way, down the line, there can be some assurances of "public trust" in private hands. Keep Steve Wynn from sticking his elbows in Picassos.

  • It

  • Thanks for this information Paul. I wasn't aware of it. And in the current economic climate it seems clear that some new paradigm is going to have to be created to deal with this deaccessioning issue. CoAccessioning could be the beginning of that conversation. Are any major institutions exploring this?

  • I am working to push CoAccessioning along. I find it a very creative solution to a significant problem. It addresses intrinsic problems really well

  • Paul,

    Thank you for the great input. Mark White would be most welcomed to put in a post on the subject.


  • First, If museums sell off their "Sunday on the Grande Jatte", why would anyone go to the museum to see the lesser works?

    Second, I worry that a "last hired, first fired" mentality might prevail, removing works by people of color. When the Art Institute did their show, "One Hundred Years of Collecting African American Art" from their collection it was clear that there were many gaps. Would they sell off their Tanners?

    Third, if many of the works have been donated to museums, can they really be sold?
    I thought there would be conditions attached to the bequests, so only purchased works can be sold?

  • Joyce,

    I don

  • Thanks for the clarifications Paul.

    Joyce, I don't think that there's any danger of the museums targeting works by artists of color for a kind of deaccessioning "ethnic cleansing." Given the fact that deaccessioning is done to raise funds by selling works that are highly valuable on the open market, this precludes the works of most artists of color, since their works--with very, very few exceptions--do not reach the market value of their white or European counterparts. You couldn't, for example, begin to acquire a Brice Marden, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Keifer, or Joan Mitchell painting for the $350,000 that was recently paid for a Kerry James Marshall painting. Jean Michel Basquiat was dead for two decades by the time his works were selling for millions of dollars. He obviously did not reap any of the rewards of those prices. Marden, Richter and Keifer at least are still very much alive. This is, of course, a topic for a whole other conversation. As for what works are deemed significant enough to be acquired in the first place (let alone sold), I was surprised--though not really--to find that upon his death recently the Art Institute of Chicago still did not have a painting by Robert Colescott in its collection, even though this significant (black) American painter represented the US at the 1997 Venice Biennale. Hopefully they'll rectify this.

    Art Institute director Jim Cuno has been a very vocal and impassioned voice for the significant role of the museum in our larger social culture. Perhaps he, along with Graham Beal (Detroit Institute of Arts director), can spearhead a conversation amongst their museum director peers about CoAccessioning. It seems to be at least one bright light in an otherwise murky landscape and as such is certainly worth a deeper look.

  • Good point on Robert Colescott's work that has been exhibited, and readily available to interested museums in Chicago, at N'Namdi Gallery on numerous occasions, Elizabeth Catlett's sculptures are also missing from the A.I.C. collection (yes, I know they have her lithos). The Tanners, I don't think, are always displayed; William H. Johnson, Roy deCarava, Martin Puryear, Cortor and Motley among others in the collection may not make the biggest bucks, but cumulatively will make money and might be considered a small loss. That's my concern.

    These discussions are informative. Paul's reiteration of the glossary terms will enlighten anyone unfamiliar with them.

    The bottom line is we exert no pressure on what the museum accessions or acquires, deaccessions or sells coacessions or co-partners possession with another party, unless we have the funds to participate in the relevant transactions.

  • With Paul Klein's and Kathryn Born's kind personal invitations, it would be churlish not to chime in on this Art Talk Chicago discussion of deaccession and Coaccession(tm). In fact, I'm very, very glad to see more people beginning to realize that deaccession -- to sell or not to sell -- is not the only option in collections management. Let me start with an overview of Coaccession, where the decision becomes to share or not to share.

    Coaccession is the word I invented and trademarked to describe my patent-pending system for shared ownership of cultural property. Sharing ownership lets museums hold just the inexpensive property rights crucial for their mission -- exhibition, research and conservation -- without the need to also hold the one very costly property right -- possession -- that often constitutes more of a burden than benefit within traditional collection management systems. By licensing Coaccession, museums can transcend the traditional limits of accessions and deaccessions.

    Coaccession lets museums focus their financial resources where they really matter to the public -- expanding access to and knowledge about important originals held in public trust -- rather than continuing the accidental accumulation of vast unintended and inaccessible financial reserves. Coaccession does this by letting the public invest savings and wealth in museum collections, embracing social responsible investing that supports and stimulates that part of the cultural sector guided by curators and conservators. When the public makes those investments, museums don't have to.

    Shared ownership creates new partnerships for a better society that more fully applies all the value, cultural and financial, created by cultural contributions. Coaccession empowers the arts and sciences financially by mobilizing their economic contributions in support of their own activities. Artists and scientists can do much, much more when the public has a system designed so that it can knowledgeably invest in their creations and discoveries. Coaccession creates value by facilitating those investments.

    Turning from the overview to specific questions, let me first address why museums should consider Coaccession even when they wouldn't consider deaccession. When museums deaccession, the artwork (or dinosaur bone or ...) leaves the collection completely. The museum has no continuing claim. When museums Coaccession, the item is legally in the collection, accessible whenever the museum chooses to exhibit, research or conserve it. The museum has continuing legal rights even without continuous physical possession. Informally, you could say deaccession forces the museum to choose between its Monet or money, while Coaccession lets the museum have its Monet and money, too.

    True, the museum has slightly less money because it held onto the rights other than possession, but it has most of the money and all the cultural rights. Instead of wholesale cannibalization of museum collections, Coaccession leads to wholesale mobilization of museum collections. Museums could certainly use the proceeds for acquisitions (which they could also Coaccession to minimize their own financial commitment), but they could also legitimately use the proceeds for any other aspect of their mission, like expanding public hours, hiring more curators and conservators, and mounting more exhibitions, since sharing ownership with Coaccession does not diminish the collection held in public trust.

    With Coaccession, museums could use their hidden financial reserves to bring far more cultural property into the public trust, and to make that cultural property far more accessible to the public, and to greatly expand our knowledge about that cultural property. With a few hundred billion here and a trillion there, we could look forward to the day when Coaccession lets museums leverage existing collection values to buy Cultural Titles(tm) to control cultural rights to most cultural property, ensuring that their exhibitions, publications and conservation activities make the most curatorial sense, rather than just settling for whatever pieces curators can beg, borrow or buy at full, undivided title prices. Would those full, undivided title prices decrease if museums sold possession rights to existing collections, only holding or acquiring cultural rights? That depends on the public's appetite for museum-quality pieces for portfolio investments and personal satisfaction, which may or may not support existing prices but would surely absorb possession rights at prices that let museums acquire vast new cultural rights and still have substantial funds remaining to support exhibitions, research and conservation, and jobs for the many people who make those happen.

    That said, Coaccession doesn't simplify collection management. It just vastly increases the financial resources museums can dedicate to managing collections and to other aspects of their missions. Donor restrictions, copyrights, moral rights and other legal considerations will play a part in how museums apply Coaccession, as will practical considerations of how robust a piece is that might leave permanent storage in the museum basement for display in a collector's home or office. Of course, practical considerations don't always cut one way. The collector Coaccessioning a museum piece has ownership, with an owner's motive to care for the piece. The dirty little secret about museum basements is that some pieces at some cash-strapped museums could get better care in a collector's home than they get right now. By concentrating more cash on fewer pieces, Coaccession can let cash-strapped museums improve their collections care by "storing" pieces with well-heeled collectors. And while a collector does have the right to burn a deaccessioned piece, the museum's ongoing rights to a Coaccessioned piece provide legal security as a backstop to the owner's natural motive to protect their own valuable property. Plus, Coaccession requires museums and collectors to partner with insurance companies in protecting that value.

    Of course, not all museum works are in the basement, which means not all Coaccessioned works would go to a collector's home or office. A collector "stores" the piece only when the museum doesn't exercise its rights to exhibit, research or conserve the piece. If a collector buys possession of "Sunday on the Grande Jatte," it should be with the expectation that a very, very, very long time might pass before the museum is not actively exhibiting, researching or conserving that painting. That doesn't mean a Collector Title(tm) with the right to possess Grand Jatte only when it's off exhibit would be a bad investment, though. People buy gold and pay to store it in vaults without expecting to take physical possession before selling it again. Grand Jatte doesn't cost the collector anything to store, and rising art markets could increase the value of its Collector Title through many sales and purchase cycles before the Art Institute finally, if ever, decides its time for it to go to "the basement." And while the collector holds Collector Title to Grand Jatte or American Gothic or Nighthawks, there's the satisfaction that the investment is stimulating the arts rather than stimulating the gold mining industry.

    Some object that gold is more liquid than art, but that's partly an effect of traditional property rights and markets for art, not something intrinsic to art itself. With Coaccession separating art as a tangible store of value from art as cultural asset, museums can act as repositories that store investment valuables traded on exchanges, much as gold trades on exchanges. Exchange-traded cultural property wouldn't just count on museums choosing to continue to exhibit an iconic piece, though. To put American Gothic shares on a Chicago Board of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago would have to accept a positive obligation to care for and exhibit American Gothic as long as there is an Art Institute of Chicago. In return for accepting that Investor Title(tm) obligation, the Art Institute would have the net proceeds (one-hundred-million-dollars-plus??) from American Gothic's initial public offering. Only the most blue-chip artworks at the most blue-chip museums could trade on the big art board, but the improved price transparency and liquidity at that highest level would improve pricing and liquidity in dealer and auction markets all down the line.

    With five million American Gothic shares outstanding and trading on the Chicago Board of Art, you could put on the order of a couple thousand dollars worth of great art into your diversified investment portfolio by calling a broker to buy one hundred shares. With Collector Titles available from your local historical society, you could bring home a small piece of history and keep it safe both as an investment and as a reminder of your community's importance to you. Collector titles from your local natural history museum, zoo, aquarium and botanical garden could let you invest in your greater understanding and enjoyment of nature. Collector titles from your sacred place could let you invest in artworks for your congregation's joy and consolation. And of course this audience would eagerly seek Collector Titles from their local art museums. These investments offer the prospect, if not the guarantee, of financial gains if someday you should need cash for expenses or other investments. In the meantime, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing your investments shared with and supported institutions that offer more meaning in your life.

    You may wonder, quite reasonably, if Coaccession can really deliver on these glowing prospects. In just over three years of research and vetting, experts in property, contract, tax and patent law, museum operations, insurance, financial markets, finance, art markets and art have considered Coaccession, and while all have cautioned that applying Coaccession will require careful structuring, positioning and drafting, none have identified any fatal flaws that would conclusively prevent Coaccession applications. More importantly, many ordinary people find Coaccession intuitively appealing. Not everyone will want to pioneer Collector Title and Investor Title investments, and not every museum will want to pioneer in holding Cultural Titles. Fortunately, not everyone and every museum needs to, and it seems enough pioneers may soon embrace Coaccession to begin proving its added value as a novel tool in the toolboxes for managing collections and investments.

    Great topic, Dawoud

  • Big thanks Mark for this expanded explanation about Coaccessioning and how it could work in both the museum's and public's favor. I'll look forward to reading about the first institutions bold enough to sign onto this idea.

  • Since your post addressed deaccessions by museums, Dawoud, my comment followed suit on Coaccessions. In terms of boldness, though, it may be artists who sign on before museums.

    Artists who sell Collector Titles to their works assure, by retaining Cultural Titles, that their works are always available for exhibition, research and conservation on Coaccession's terms. True, those artists may get a little less money initially, but in return they'll have much more control over their career and legacy. In particular, as their careers evolve artists can decide to keep their Cultural Titles in their own foundations in perpetuity or to sell or donate those Cultural Titles to the art museums where they will most enhance art history. More artists will put a much higher cultural value on their retained cultural rights than collectors will, and some collectors even may even see added financial value in Collector Titles to works where artists retain cultural control over their ouvre. It would not surprise me at all if artists begin licensing the Coaccession system before museums do.

    Do you think any artists out there are bold enough to seize cultural control of their work? I'd love to meet them.

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