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Deaccessioning: The Pandora's Box of Leadership

By Handongi - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83479513

After months of COVID furloughs, firings and cutbacks, last week deaccessioning took center stage in the museum world. If your mind was on other things, here's a capsule narrative: In early October the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) announced it would sell three paintings by Brice Marden, Clyfford Still and Andy Warhol. It plans to use the money for collection development and to address pay equity issues. BMA's deaccession follows the Brooklyn Museum's sale of 12 paintings. Both museums are deaccessioning after AAMD's April announcement announcing that it wouldn't sanction museums using deaccessioning funds for general operating support for the next two years.

There are stark differences between the two cases. Like many organizations, the Brooklyn Museum received a $4.5 million PPP loan, and laid off 28 full-time staff this summer. The Baltimore Museum of Art has retained its staff and is reportedly solven. It will use the money to add to an endowment for the acquisition of work by BIPOC artists, while the remainder will create an endowment for staff salaries.

The two sales, and the AAMD's summer ruling, are haunted by the 2018 deaccessioning by the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA. There, the trustees and then-director Van Shields chose to sell 40 works from the collection for $42 million in a lengthy case that brought censure from AAMD, AAM, and many of its peers. Until AAMD relaxed its rules, the Berkshire Museum case seemed precedent setting, the kind of legal and ethical puzzle that would be examined by museum studies students for decades to come. Unlike the current group of sales, the Berkshire Museum wasn't trying to diversify its collection, make its salaries more equitable or survive a recession caused by a world-wide pandemic. When all the explanations were parsed, it seemed to be undergoing an identity crisis, and wanted to shed its century old role as a small city general museum with a jewel of an art collection and be something else. The elephant in the room is that a $42-million endowment, even in the face of a pandemic, is likely to lower a board's anxiety level, whether the organization is open or not.

One of the many voices who joined the Baltimore Museum of Art discussion is Arnold Lehman, Director Emeritus of the Brooklyn Museum, and a former director of the BMA. Lehman's knowledge of the BMA's collection is deep, yet it's clear the Museum's decision is about more than its collection. Nowhere in his letter does Lehman hint that there are larger systemic issues at work inside the museum walls. And yet, here is BMA Director Christopher Bedford quoted in The Times: “This is done specifically in recognition of the protest being led by museum staff to be paid an equitable living wage to perform core work for an institution with a social justice mission — that symmetry between who we say we are and what we actually are behind our doors."

I would like to think that over the last nine months museum leaders have realized that being temples to white men, whether to white male artists, builders, politicians or rich guys, has lost its appeal, particularly in a city like Baltimore with a majority Black population of 63-percent. Part of that behavior extends to the way staff is treated. And a museum staff is everyone, from the cleaners and the guards to the curators, and their treatment includes salaries.

Could Baltimore have handled its deaccession decision differently? Maybe. It could have left the inequity of its salaries unaddressed, and perhaps gone on to face the type of protest and press its New York City sister museums have experienced. It could have deaccessioned from the bottom up, selling many smaller works in an attempt to reach the necessary dollar level. It also could have selected paintings likely to sell to another art museum, thus keeping work on public view. It could, as Franklin Sirmans of Miami's Perez Museum suggests, have made a commitment to collecting Black and Latinex artists years ago. (True, but few boards did, which seems to be the heart of the problem.) Or it could have selected a different trio of big-ticket paintings that likely would have enraged a different portion of the public. The fact of the matter is we don't know. Boards and their directors are like families. You may theorize what's going on inside based on what you see, but without an inside seat, you don't actually know.

In May guest blogger Steven Miller wrote about museum boards, "....the effect of an unprecedented coronavirus pandemic makes their work incredibly difficult.  The challenges are mind-boggling.  Ultimately, practical solutions for museums are almost entirely of a fiscal nature.  What will it cost to survive, how will survival be defined, and, where will the money come from, not to mention when?" Museums are expensive places to run, and unlike the proverbial widget factory, what museums sell doesn't net a profit so their value and their income streams don't intertwine.

Deaccessioning is an important and necessary tool for all museums, but when boards and directors use collections as a cash cow, it erodes public trust. In its 2016 report on Direct Care of Collections AAM wrote, "If a museum experiences financial difficulties, its governing body must make decisions that are consistent with its mission and its obligations to the public with regard to collections stewardship. It should ensure that funds realized from the sale of deaccessioned objects are never used as a substitute for fiscal responsibility." That last sentence presages the Berkshire Museum's choices, but doesn't necessarily apply to the Brooklyn and BMA.

Context in these cases is important. What if the community both inside and outside the museum changes? What if the community no longer sees cultural gatekeeping for a culture in which it has no part as essential? Can you know that from the outside? Then, is the museum just a warehouse full of supposedly important stuff? To a purist, does that matter? And a decade from now, will we look back and realize this was a hinge moment for museums, and we will mark time regarding collections before and after COVID?

There are so many times in a museum's life where good leadership is key, not just from the curatorial staff, the director, but the board as well. Deaccessioning is no exception. These questions, particularly in this moment of cultural and financial upheaval, seem peculiarly individual. Boards and directors may be asked to make the least bad decision, yet one that benefits their own organization, their own staff and their own community. And the solution for Baltimore may not be the solution for Rochester or LA or Brooklyn. Just another important reason why museum leadership truly matters in this age of discord.

Stay safe,

Joan Baldwin

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