Deaccession. It’s a word that brings chills to donors and would-be donors of art to public galleries. The ingratitude. The betrayal. How can they sell my gift, my art?! To deaccession is, in conventional curatorial thinking, to break trust with donors. It chases them away.
In the spirit of pragmatism, most museums and galleries rule out selling works from their collection. It becomes a matter of policy. “We never sell works after they have entered the collection,” I was told by the director of prominent Canadian museum. It is difficult for the current generation of curators to anticipate what will be valued in the future. And, frankly the path of least resistance is storage, which is much easier than explaining why a public institution is flogging art on the open market.
Increasingly, donations are subject to restrictions. A gift by will may be contingent upon the gallery promising the work will remain in its collection and be attributed to the donor. An actively negotiated gift agreement may result in the gallery providing reassurances that certain works will be permanently displayed. Display guarantees are considered by curators to be foolhardy due to limited wall space and future flexibility.
The dumping of weak and unfashionable works does occur. In 2014, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), after a bit of hand-wringing, sold an odd-ball collection of 19th century European paintings, including some Hague school. The Hague school was all the rage among respectable Canadian collectors a century ago, but history embraced Impressionism and successor movements. Releasing these works to the market was hardly a tough curatorial call, but the AGO instituted a deaccession policy before the auction occurred.
One fearless institution is MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York City. MOMA, which sits at the pinnacle of modern art institutions, has made it a policy to accept only unrestricted gifts. Indeed, a MOMA colleague informed me that the museum will not accept gifts of art by will into the collection without advanced curatorial approval.
To improve their collection, MOMA sells works that other galleries would kill for. In 1937, a Degas from the Lianne Bliss bequest was sold to purchase Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, one of the iconic works of modern art. Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans were upgraded to an earlier and complete set. A 1999 exhibition even featured the MOMA rejects, which included 21 Picassos, 8 Cezannes and 4 de Chiricos. In 2015, MOMA sold a Monet. It is a mission-driven and entrepreneurial strategy, but not always appealing to philanthropists.
Many great collectors have created their own museums that are ruled from the grave. The Frick Museum in New York, Isabel Gardiner Museum in Boston and Barnes Collection in Philadelphia have no sale and no loan restrictions. Even rehanging the art around may be banned.
With the ongoing vigor of the art market, as well as space and resource restrictions of public galleries, deaccessioning art will continue to be debated. It’s something for collectors and philanthropists to address in their planning.