The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Met plans to use money from art sales to help it survive the pandemic. Critics say it’s a dangerous precedent.

People sit on the steps during the public reopening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last August. (Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art approved a policy last week that allows proceeds from the sale of works from its collection to be used for salaries and overhead costs associated with the collection’s care. The move follows similar actions by other museums, including ones in Brooklyn, Baltimore and Chicago, and marks the latest development in a debate that has been roiling the museum field and has set some of the country’s leading museum directors against one another.

Deaccessioning — the routine practice of pruning and shaping a museum’s collection by putting works up for sale — has become intensely controversial since the spring of last year, when the field’s membership organization relaxed the rules governing the use of proceeds from art sales. As a result, American art museums hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic are wrestling with a vexing problem: To what extent should they use the proceeds from these sales to avoid financial trouble or even to pay for other, program-related goals?

The museum field is on edge after an attempt last fall by the Baltimore Museum of Art to raise $65 million by selling three works provoked a huge backlash, resulting in the works being taken off the market at the last moment. But tensions around deaccessioning predate both the Baltimore controversy and covid-19.

Some supporters of liberalized deaccessioning frame the relaxed rules as a minor accounting detail that could provide temporary financial relief.

“It’s not as if crazy things are happening,” Met Director Max Hollein said in a phone interview with The Washington Post last week. The Met is not planning to sell works it wouldn’t be selling anyway, he said, and there are still strict limits on how the funds can be used. Met officials will release a report on the past year at a media event Tuesday, but they are not expected to offer more details about the deaccessioning plan, including what pieces might be sold or when.

Critics of the new guidelines, including Hollein’s predecessor, Thomas P. Campbell, believe in the sanctity of public collections and want to maintain strict controls to protect them. They view the shift as the first step in a fundamental change in museum operations. If museums use deaccession funds more broadly — even to survive a crisis like the pandemic — there may be no going back. Terms like “Pandora’s box” and “slippery slope” are routinely invoked by those who believe a museum’s artworks should never be treated as assets to be monetized, unless it is to buy new art.

Critics have taken their argument public, protesting the Met and the practice writ large. An online petition calling on Met leaders “to resist any attempts to sell off the art the Met holds in the public trust” has collected nearly 25,000 signatures. (Organizers delivered the signatures to the Met on Monday.)

In a recent op-ed, Campbell outlined his fear that the well-intentioned move by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) will become permanent and will undermine its authority.

“Donor trust will be damaged,” Campbell, director and chief executive of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, wrote. “Boards and civic entities may take advantage of the new guidelines to evade their fiduciary responsibilities . . . [and] the premise that museum art collections are not taxable assets could be overturned.”

Campbell also notes that deaccessioning is not a silver bullet. “It is often hard work for relatively slim returns,” he said in an interview published in the forthcoming book “Collections and Deaccessioning in a Post-Pandemic World.” “The objects that could legitimately be deaccessioned as second rate or duplicates were often exactly that, second rate and not very valuable. Where the money was to be made was in Impressionist paintings and modern masters.”

But Museum of Modern Art Director Glenn Lowry questions the benefits of having so many works “in the basement.”

“Over time, if you release hundreds or thousands of objects that might be worth $1,000 or $5,000 or $10,000, you know what? That adds up to a lot of money,” he said.

There’s widespread disagreement about whether the AAMD change is really temporary. Hollein expects the group to revert to the pre-covid guidelines next year, a move he supports. Stefanie Jandl, co-editor of “Collections and Deaccessioning in a Post-Pandemic World,” thinks the new guidelines are here to stay.

“I think they’re going to be solidified in the present form, which allows for a lot of flexibility,” she said.

Lowry supports the AAMD policy as it stands but says the issue needs to be debated. He frames it as an appropriate historical shift. In the 20th century, he argues, American museums were focused on building up many of the world’s best collections. In the 21st century, they “have to make good on the promise of those collections.”

“It doesn’t mean we stop acquiring. But we have to shift the focus from what we have already acquired to how we’re going to use that — how we’re going to meet the needs of the public through programs,” he said. “And in that context, we should ask ourselves what role can judicious and carefully regulated deaccessioning play in helping us to achieve that.”

American art museums are in crisis

It’s still unclear how museums will respond to the temporary rule change, although some answers will come at the auction houses’ spring sales in May, when more art from museum collections is certain to be sold.

“I think it’s going to be a tsunami,” said Mark Gold, an attorney, author and organizer of “Deaccessioning After 2020,” a virtual symposium planned for March 17-19.

The debate over the use of deaccession funds erupted last April, when the AAMD announced a change to help its members weather the financial fallout from the pandemic. Between then and April 2022, AAMD members who are in financial distress would not be sanctioned if they used proceeds from the sale of art to fund the care of their collections. The field’s other service organization, the larger American Alliance of Museums (AAM), had issued a similar update to its guidelines in 2019. That update required museums to adopt policies defining “direct care”; it did not require financial duress.

Museums across the country responded, and some, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Palm Springs Museum of Art in California and the Everson Museum in Syracuse, N.Y., announced deaccessioning plans. But the Baltimore Museum of Art grabbed headlines when it said it would sell three major paintings to create a fund for long-term diversity efforts. Community members and former trustees signed letters of protest, board members resigned, and donors rescinded their planned gifts. Facing a month of unrelenting pressure, the museum canceled the sales.

The Baltimore plan had many flaws. The AAMD’s change was supposed to apply to financially struggling museums, but BMA’s director, Christopher Bedford, repeatedly said his organization was fiscally sound. The sale was needed, he said, to address long-standing inequities and to improve diversity and access. The three works — Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper” and paintings by Clyfford Still and Brice Marden — were problematic, too, because they flouted the accepted traditions that museums should never sell masterpieces or works by living artists. Baltimore’s plan proposed both. (Baltimore did not give up on its goal and last month announced gifts of almost $1.5 million for diversity, equity and inclusion, including funds for evening hours and for pay increases for hourly workers.)

Baltimore calls off sale of three paintings hours before auction

The BMA controversy brought wider attention to the difficult issues facing museums in general, leaders say. Beyond the many losses tied to the pandemic, museums are also facing internal and external calls for racial and social justice. In a survey released last summer, one-third of AAM museum directors said they were at risk of closing or unsure if they could survive.

“People are having conversations and understanding that museums are being pulled in a hundred different directions for growth, when our finances are not growing,” said Brooklyn Museum Director Anne Pasternak. “The cost of direct care has grown exponentially in recent years. Institutions are acquiring, acquiring, acquiring, but without support for its care, you’re undermining your collection.”

The Brooklyn Museum began discussing its deaccessioning plan in 2019, a year before the AAMD’s modification. Last fall, the museum sold just over 40 works, including a group of decorative art objects and pieces by Monet, Miró and Cranach, and placed the $35 million in proceeds in a permanent endowment (with a goal of $40 million). The annual interest from the fund will cover the estimated $2 million required to care for the collection.

“To me, the most responsible thing is not to sell a Monet and use [the proceeds] for general operating support. The most responsible thing is to create a fund to benefit the institution in perpetuity,” Pasternak said. The museum has taken a “conservative approach” to its definition of collection care, which covers storage, conservation, documentation, and the safe installation, de-installation and transport of art. Salaries of those performing these duties are included, but Pasternak said the endowment will cover only staff time spent with the art.

“It’s an interesting lifeline,” said Sally Yerkovich, chair of the AAM committee on direct care, who teaches museum ethics at Columbia University. “What it does is it frees up resources. If you can use money for conservation, then you’re freeing other money to use for other aspects of your operations. It could be exactly what some art museums really need.”

Smithsonian lays off 237 as covid-19 continues to limit operations

Many smaller museums have avoided deaccessioning because they fear getting entangled in controversy, Yerkovich said. As a result, they spend their limited resources on caring for things that no longer contribute to their mission.

“For years there was a chill, and one of the things that we had hoped with the [AAM’s] direct care of collection report was that it would normalize the process,” she said.

Lowry welcomes the increased flexibility provided by the AAMD’s temporary change. Acquiring new work may not be the primary concern of many institutions, he said, especially small ones struggling to survive.

“We as a profession should be doing everything we can to give those institutions in particular the tools they need to survive in this time,” Lowry said.

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