Museum Art Sales Draw Increased Scrutiny

The sale of artworks from museum collections, a practice known as deaccessioning, has come under increased scrutiny, the New York Times reports.

While over the last year or so the National Academy Museum and the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University got into hot water for selling — or thinking about selling — pieces from their collections to cover operating costs, the heretofore routine selling of artworks to fund future acquisitions has typically gone unremarked. "Part of the normal biological clock of museums is to examine their collections," said David Franklin, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, which had thirty-two paintings for sale at Sotheby's Old Masters auction in January. "We should be constantly refining and upgrading. I've given the message to all the curators that I regard deaccessioning as a normal act, and I encourage them to reassess the collections constantly."

Nevertheless, museum directors and curators increasingly are finding that they have to defend the practice. Some of the criticism around deaccessioning has focused on the lack of transparency in such sales. To address those concerns, the Indianapolis Museum of Art lists on its Web site every object being sold, the reason it is being offered, and its estimated value or sale price, as well as links to newly acquired works whose purchase was enabled by the sale of works in the collection.

Deaccessioning policies vary from institution to institution. In order to preserve flexibility with respect to its own collection, the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others, opposed temporary regulations promulgated by the New York State Board of Regents in 2008 putting stricter restrictions on the practice. "It's sometimes portrayed in the press as if we're trading houses, with objects going in and going out," said Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. "That's not the case. It's like a gardener pruning a tree over a long period of time. Deaccessioning is a healthy part of the management of any museum collection. We're not playing the market."

Robin Pogrebin. "The Permanent Collection May Not Be So Permanent." New York Times 01/26/2011.