Deaccessioning Redux: Two Days at the Syracuse Symposium
Throughout the pandemic the world has been awash in online events, and that's a good thing. You can travel to annual meetings, have cocktails with friends, take art or yoga, or learn a new workplace skill, all without leaving home. To date, I haven't participated, but in January I saw an announcement for Syracuse University's symposium on deaccessioning. March seemed like forever in the future, and I decided to take the plunge. Last week, I plugged in and listened, and I'm glad I did.
First, congratulations to Andrew Saluti, Program Coordinator for Syracuse's Graduate Program in Museum Studies, and his colleagues across the University for shaping an incredibly timely, thoughtful and dynamic two days. How often do you get to sit at your kitchen table and hear Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham, Co-Founder of Museum Hue, Kaywin Feldman, Director of the National Gallery of Art or Anna Pasternak, Director of the Brooklyn Museum, and many more? It was amazing and overwhelming, but also deeply compelling. Some decade in the future when a graduate student listens to the recordings, I hope they parse what wasn't said in addition to what was.
There were 10 sessions interspersed with keynotes from Johnson-Cunningham, Feldman, and Christopher Bedford, Director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Some overlapped so it was impossible to hear everything, meaning I missed the inimitable Christy Coleman, and my colleagues Scott Wands and Larry Yerdon talking about historic sites and deaccessioning, committing myself to "Museums with Parent Organizations" since that speaks more to my life at the moment, but here are some random thoughts on deaccessioning and the two-day conversation.
**Many speakers remarked that deaccessioning happens all the time. I'm not sure that's true. With smaller collections, it's always a possibility, but a muscle rarely used. In order to consider deaccessioning, a museum needs a collection deep enough to be pruned, and curators, leadership and a board skilled enough to go through a process that requires demanding research, strong internal policies, and leadership who understands its role. A small heritage organization with 12 walking wheels, a half dozen broken stoves, and a collection of stuffed birds and eggs it no longer wants, is in a very different position than a regional art museum with two Bierstadts, seven Coles, and a dozen deKooning drawings. The heritage organization may go through all the same steps to empty their storage areas, but the rewards are more about space gained than the lure of millions of dollars. Yet there are medium-sized to small organizations who own highly-marketable pieces, and throughout the two days it seemed as though no one wanted to say here's what you shouldn't do. There was a fair amount of prevaricating, of I-don't-want-to-speak-for another-organization, and yet if you look back over the last 20 years, the stories we remember are the ones where things went south fast. Why? Because this is a system whose guardrails resemble an honor code. Staying inside the lines requires a level of sophistication and understanding that not every board or museum leader brings to the table.
**One of the things that came up early in the Symposium, but deserves examination is the cost of collecting. You might say, but it's what we do. We're museums after all. True, but not all museums are collecting institutions. Some, like MASS MoCA, don't collect. They work as platforms for a changing group of artists and their work. But for museums and heritage organizations that have always collected, there is a human cost behind every acquisition, from shippers, registrars, and curators, to guards, educators and advancement people. In speaking about the Baltimore Art Museum's decision to deaccession, Christopher Bedford remarked that if you have a gazillion dollar painting about social justice, and you pay the Black guard to protect it $12.50 an hour that is more than ironic, it's unethical.
**Overall, this was a decorous event. There were clearly people who disagreed with one another, but there was no rancor and no emotion except passion for museums. The Berkshire Museum, perhaps the poster child for bad choices when it comes to deaccessioning, managed to secure its own session shared with staff from the Everson Museum, who this fall deaccessioned a Jackson Pollock. The session was moderated by consultant Laura Roberts. Speaking for the museum was its former director, Van Shields, and former board chair Elizabeth McGraw. Unlike a later session where moderator Kristina Durocher grilled former Randolph College trustee Peter Dean about the college's sale of its paintings, Shields and McGraw faced no hard-ball questions. Their self-reported narrative is one of choosing to make hard choices, and having the community pillory them for it. Their stories stood in sharp contrast to Tracy Riese, a trustee for the Brooklyn Museum, who in the final session remarked, "Nobody in their right mind will reduce a collection so it's not worth visiting....You aren't looking to burn the furniture to feed the fireplace. That is extremely irresponsible."
**In retrospect, one of the things that strikes me is how complex and multi-faceted deaccessioning is. Glenn Lowry, MOMA's president, remarked that deaccessioning is a single tool in the museum leadership toolbox, adding that you use it when "you muster all the assets and put them in play for value in your community in a deep and everlasting way." If you look back on the more contentious sales of the last quarter century many share a massive lack of transparency. Transparency doesn't just mean reporting that certain objects are leaving the collection. Transparency means openness about mission, about why a particular piece no longer fits. Those conversations must happen internally before they happen externally, as the director, curators and board work to understand a painting's meaning. Where does it fit in the collection? Is it an only child or does it have siblings either by the same artist or in the same period? What artists are missing from the collection? If a painting is sold, what would the museum add, and why? And on and on. Too often, it seems, smaller organizations look first at auction estimates, and the lure of the pot of gold means discussions--if indeed they take place-- are laden with confirmation bias, and context becomes impossible. As Tracy Riese said, "Deaccessioning is one tool. You still need fund raising and earned income. I haven't experienced my board refusing to raise money."
**I came of age in a museum world bathed in the collect, preserve, and interpret philosophy. It was a world where the collection is all. Thankfully, things are changing. As Glenn Lowry put it, there has been a shift "Away from the sanctity of the object," adding that to a new place, so our thinking about our assets has to change." And mission, added Riese, is larger than all the objects. It's a theme Johnson-Cunningham raised in the opening keynote: That a community-centered museum makes people its focus, and that is completely different from the encyclopedic, colonialistic premise of many museums of the early 20th-century.
**Last, DEI played an important role in many of the sessions. DEI at its best is participatory, nuanced, engaged and community driven. It is not, as Johnson-Cunningham said, "Black bodies (or black art work) in white spaces." Linda Harrison, director and CEO of the Newark Museum, said her museum doesn't separate DEI from racial, gender and pay equity. She suggested it's easier to present DEI through collections, but added that does not represent change when behind the curtain "we are woefully 1972." The Newark Museum has pledged itself to be "Of the community" as opposed to "For the Community." That mindset contrasts starkly with the Berkshire Museum's McGraw who remarked that "by bringing culture to everyone, they will have a greater appreciation,"a mindset that suggests the museum, as opposed to the community, knows all.
Not every university or museum graduate program has the wherewithal and resources to put together a program like Syracuse, but it sets an important and interesting precedent. Yes, a lot of interesting conversations happen at annual and regional meetings, but a 30-minute conversation about deaccessioning doesn't hold a candle to this two-day event. Nor should it. Annual meetings are egalitarian by nature. They provide opportunities for both young and experienced leaders to speak about their work. That is very different from a curated and iterative conversation with some of the sharpest minds in the field. And the beauty of deaccessioning is that it's a lens that looks at leadership, policies, pay equity, collections, research, and more. Whether you participated in the Symposium or not, maybe this is the moment to re-read your collection policy, and to make sure you understand your state rules and regulations regarding deaccessioning. You can follow with AAM's Direct Care of Collections and Glenn Adamson's In Defense of Progressive Deaccessioning.
Stay safe, stay well, stay masked. Spring is coming and so are vaccinations.