Deaccessioning redux

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, ex collection Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, image courtesy Freeman’s

We do from time to time welcome student groups from the local university, and one student in one such group asked upon visiting whether any of the items in our inventory were, in her words, ‘museum pieces.’ My reply was ‘All of them or none of them.’ Momentarily glib, I’ll admit, it did serve to beg discussion, with museum culture, as my gentle readers will know, being one of my favorite topics. I happily explained that what ends up in a museum does so because someone made the decision to put it there, and that ‘museum piece’ by which was meant ‘museum quality’ is the result of an entirely subjective judgment, and given the masses of items being deaccessioned, hardly an enduring one.

Let’s back up to the point of beginning, the why of museum’s acquisitions in the first place. Certainly in the case of survey art museums, a huge quantity of material is on offer- gratis. As most museums now devote a significant percentage of their exhibition space to living artists, it is typical for an artist exhibiting to donate one or more, or many, of the items on exhibit to the museum that fielded it. And once offered, it is the job of the museum’s accessions committee, headed by its chief curator and usually composed of several museum trustees, to determine whether or not to accept the items offered. Too often, too many pieces are accepted the result of several factors that are endemic to most museums. In the first place, very few museums have a clearly established policy about accepting artwork, and certainly in this day and age where museums are struggling and are grappling with what it takes to ensure their very survival, it is easier to just accept an artwork than to risk hurt feelings and subsequent claims that, in not accepting an artwork, the museum is somehow at least indifferent, or even hostile, to a portion of its constituency.

In palmier days, when survival was less concerning, one might think accessions could be more rigidly controlled, with its constituencies more established and less in a state of flux. If you thought that, you’d be wrong. The survey art museums have always been about money, and the constituency that mattered almost solely was the great freemasonry of the rich. In the United States, if survey art museums in the bigger cities have a European feel to them, that is because in the 19th and early 20th centuries, US museums consciously sought to ape their European predecessors, aided by the likes of Lord Duveen who found eager customers in, to name two, Andrew Mellon and Arabella Huntington who fervently believed that high culture in America had to be imported from Europe if it were to exist at all. With all that, for every Gainsborough ‘Blue Boy’ there were bales of sort of looks like but not really the same that went on the walls, with museums built at a faster rate than there were artworks of quality to display in them.

So, what have museums got? Masses of artworks and other objects acquired under a variety of different rationale, none of which really conform to any precise rubric. And once acquired, for most of them, their fate is to languish in some storage facility in the basement. I wrote ‘languish’ when in very many cases it would be more accurate to say ‘molder’ as even under the best storage conditions, many items, and particularly paintings, gradually disintegrate. I am reminded of the lament of a museum curator who told me how, in a few short years, a proud signature of a famous artist, scumbled atop the design layer of one his best works, gradually flaked off. Take it from me, paintings, period furniture, indeed most works of fine and decorative arts are dynamic in their materials. Oil paintings typically require significant restoration, even if held and exhibited in optimal surroundings, at least once a century. That might seem infrequent, but as a reminder, the major museums in New York, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Omaha, and San Francisco and all points in between, and their corpus of collections, are well into their second centuries.

As most of my readers will remember, and flying in the face of the horror and castigation expressed by the Association of Art Museum Directors, my answer to any museum grappling with deaccession is a simple one- sell. There is nothing to be ashamed about, and given that most museums, perhaps all of them, have masses of material that will never otherwise emerge from storage in the bowels of the institution, why ever not? As I’ve written so often before, and as recently as my last blog, in these times survival is the name of the game. We’ve seen over the last couple of years lots of face-saving maneuvers employed to justify deaccessioning, with a favorite at the moment attempts to achieve racial equity in balancing collections- selling off artworks to fund acquisition of works produced by those of, say, gender and ethnicities that more closely match a museum’s changed constituencies. Laudable, but newly acquired artwork is just as expensive to maintain as what’s already in the basement.

And what’s already in the basement might be a bit easier to turn into the cash most museums now find they have in fearfully short supply. In reading the monthly newsletter of an East Coast auction house who maintains an active department specializing in deaccessions- and most auction houses now have them- I was reminded of the sale earlier this year of a work by Renoir, deaccessioned by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Important to note- until it was consigned to auction, this work by one of the best known masters of impressionism with a long ago published catalogue raisonne was unknown.

Fat lot of good a work by Renoir was doing in the basement, unseen, unloved, and clearly unknown and naturally begs the question how much else there is enjoying an equally ignoble fate- and deserves to see the light of day?

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Chappell & McCullar

The finest English antiques and Continental European antiques, Mid-Century Modern, and Contemporary furniture