Welcome to the first Art Buzz column, where twice a month I will rant about the art world’s trials and tribulations and rave about its top trends. I thought I’d start on a rant (after all, we’re in the middle of a long lockdown in England and I’ve got a lot of pent up frustration to unleash. For my raves skip to the Art Chart at the end).
My first topic is deaccessioning, which is a fancy word for when museums sell their art. Whether or not deaccessioning is a good idea is a debate that has raged for decades, but talk of the dirty D word has resurfaced since the pandemic began and cash-strapped museums started to panic about how they were going to pay their bills. Then things really kicked off when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—arguably the most important museum in the world—revealed last week that they were thinking of selling some works to cover their gaping, $150m Covid-19-induced deficit. Pouring fuel on the fire, the former Met director Thomas Campbell took to Instagram to express his horror: “Deaccessioning will be like crack cocaine to the addict—a rapid hit, that becomes a dependency,” he wrote. (Campbell is well worth an Insta follow if you don’t already; he says the most brilliantly inappropriate stuff. Does anyone remember the time when he basically said that the Salvator Mundi was a heap of junk?)
There’s some important context to add here. Deaccessioning is a matter of law as well as ethics. In the UK the laws are stricter and the practice is strongly frowned upon, whereas in the US it’s a more accepted part of collection management. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), a non-governmental organisation that regulates museum practice in North America of which most major museums are members, has a policy on deaccessioning stating that art may only be sold to buy other works. Then in April last year, when everyone was just starting to properly freak out about the pandemic, the AAMD relaxed its rules to say that museums could sell works to fund the “direct care” of collections. This triggered a torrent of works from museums heading to auction, including those from the Palm Springs Art Museum, the Brooklyn Museum and (the one that caused the most controversy) the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Lots of people, like Campbell, hate the idea of deaccessioning and his Insta post explains this position well: “Deaccessioning will disincentivise future art donations; it will release boards and civic authorities from their responsibility to find financial support for their art museums; it will encourage new debate about assessing museum art collections as fungible assets; and it may undermine the foundation of the tax deduction that incentivises private philanthropic support of art museums.”
Look, I get it. No one likes seeing masterpieces sold off from public collections to be holed up in some billionaire’s mansion, never to be seen again. But how much museum-owned art is hidden from public view? If you knew the figures, you’d be shocked. A 2015 report from the BBC revealed that out of the Met’s 1,221 works by Pablo Picasso only 24 were on show; nine of its 156 works by Joan Miró were viewable; and just one of its 145 pieces by Ed Ruscha was hanging on the walls. Not only does this art remain hidden but it costs an absolute fortune to house it in various climate-controlled vaults. Now how do you feel about the Met selling off works to ensure its survival?
I’m not saying: let’s sell off all of the Met’s treasures and roll in a Scrooge McDuck-like pile of the profits. All I’m saying is that if the Met’s not showing a work, it’s barely seen and not bringing in money through loans to other museums and the like, then maybe it’s ok for the museum to sell it to someone who might actually hang it on a wall to enjoy (I realise it may also just go into a different vault…). And maybe one less Picasso for a whole lot more diversity in a collection, or its staff, or even to ensure the longevity of a national institution, is not really such a bad a thing. And maybe it will change the way that people give to museums, perhaps with more financial gifts than curated collections full of stipulations. And maybe—just maybe—it will change the way that we look at museums; not as endlessly expanding archives of objects but as changing,contracting, living entities. And maybe that’s ok.
See you in two weeks for more Art Buzz.
To contact Aimee, email: [email protected]
The Art Chart
Clubhouse – If you’re not on this new audio-chat social networking app, who even are you? (I have two invites, HMU.)
Art fairs – This year is bringing more art fair cancellations and postponements, with Art Dubai being the latest victim. Is anyone else dreaming about big white tents and convention centres? No? Just me?
Historical statues – We’ve been debating what to do with our old racist, colonial, misogynistic monuments for far too long and now the UK government wants to keep them all for posterity. Gah.
Indianapolis Museum of Art – How on earth the directorship job advert requiring someone who would maintain its “traditional, core, white art audience” got past the comms team and out into the world, I will never understand.
Aimee Dawson is a British writer, editor and speaker on all things art and culture. Among her areas of specialty are art in the Middle East and art in the digital sphere; she writes the monthly column Insta’gratification about how the art world and Instagram collide. She is currently the Associate Digital Editor at The Art Newspaper in London and also works as a freelance writer and producer. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Clubhouse @amldawson