Museum Collection Deaccession - Do or Don't?

Art News, Art Market

October 29, 2020

The world continues to deal with the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic that endangered all possible aspects of human activity. Museums as the backbones of the art world were hit hard because of the lockdown and the fact is that these institutions were unable to maintain their function in a social but also economic sense.

Although commonplace, the American art museums are indeed private institutions practically shaped by the policies imposed by the wealthy donors and the Board of Trustees (as the institution’s main juridical body). As such, some of found themselves in a difficult situation due to the pandemic and had to come up with new solutions to step up to the game in these hardened times.

For that reason, several American museums decided to engage in deaccessioning works of art from their permanent collections after the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) announced a series of resolutions to loosen up the penalties imposed on museums regarding their need to redirect incomes from endowment funds or donations for general operating expenses. The AAMD decision also reflected on the use of deaccessioning funds meaning that museums now can use the proceeds for the “direct care” of their permanent collections or new acquisitions.

Now the recent deaccessioning undertaken by the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Palm Springs Art Museum, and The Newfields in Indianapolis, sparked controversy especially after the one announced by the Baltimore Museum of Art which supposed to sell three major works of art worth $65 million via Sotheby’s.

This particular situation unraveled severe criticism in the media and ultimately led the professionals in the field to react using open letters. The first one was signed by twenty-three museum supporters and over one hundred and fifty signatures by the renowned figures such as art historian Michael Fried and former Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) director Arnold Lehman and addressed to the Maryland Attorney General’s office to conduct the investigation regarding the calling for the cancellation of the sale and an investigation aimed to determine if the plan is a breach of the public trust.

To protest the sales, Stiles Colwill and Charles Newhall III, who acted as the former chairmen of the BMA board, withdraw verbally pledged gifts amounting to $50 million, while one of them assumed that the deaccession was initiated to bring artworks by certain trustees into the collection. Artists Amy Sherald and Adam Pendleton also resigned from the BMA board.

Deaccession The Collection - Tales of The Future

Namely, the BMA’s planned to conduct deaccessioning of Brice Marden’s painting 3, 1987, Clyfford Still’s 1957-G, 1957, and Andy Warhol’s The Last Supper, 1986. According to the museum, this $65 million worth sale will enable new acquisitions focused on artists of color from the postwar era and women artists, as well as the increment of staff’s payments under the newly launched financial plan called Endowment for the Future (pitched by BMA director Christopher Bedford, along with chief curator Asma Naeem and senior curator for research and programming Katy Siegel) that emerged as a reaction to the COVID-related shutdown.

This move marked a continuation of the museum’s agenda in releasing socially aware programs (such as 2020 Vision and Necessity of Tomorrows) to underline the presence of the underrepresented. On the other hand, although the deaccessioning could be interpreted as well-intentioned (as the funds could indeed increase the care of the permanent collection, enable equal increment of the salaries for the museum staff, and create funds for diversity programs) the critics expressed their concern for the BMA’s method for raising more funds especially after the institution reported it is not in a serious difficult financial state. 

Clyfford Still - 1957-G, 1957. Oil on canvas, 108 1/4 x 92 1/4 in (275 x 234.3 cm). Image via Sotheby's

The Allegations

As a matter of fact, the BMA’s announcement evoked much criticism due to the impression that it took the advantage of the mentioned new changes introduced by the U.S. Association of Art Museum Directors’ (AAMD) recently. The critics expressed that the museum is using the rule changes to generate more funds for projects that do not necessarily fall under the endangered category. To be more precise, the claim that the museum will use the sale of works to increase salaries seems like a first-hand manipulation of the AAMD guidelines as it appears to be a unique example of conflict of interest since the museum’s curators were involved in the voting process regarding the deaccessioning proposition that would directly reflect on their payments.

Another significant argument appointed to the BMA’s controversial decision has to do with the historical context and the place each work has in the permanent collection. According to the art historians and other curators, the sale of the painting 1957-G by Clyfford Still, the pioneering Abstract Expressionist, would be a major loss. The artist gifted this important work of art to the museum in 1969 and it is his only piece in the entire collection meaning that the sale would undermine the context. Then there is Andy Warhol’s The Last Supper, which is expected to be sold for a sum of $40 million, through a private sale by Sotheby’s. The BMA clarified that this painting is redundant to the collection, and the decision to sell this work remained unclear since the collection has far more suitable late-career duplicates; it appears to be The Last Supper is the most profitable one. As far as for Brice Marden’s work the suggestion was directed on the resonance of the only oil painting the museum has along with fifteen other small-scale works of paper that do not show the artist’s full capacity as the 1978 piece 3.

Along with these allegations, the critics have indicated that the museum decided to sell Warhol’s work at an outrages discount; that the deaccession of the works departs from the AAMD’s guidelines established by the American Alliance of Museums; that the loss of the works will leave a significant gap in the BMA’s collection.

BMA denied the accusations underlining that all conflict of interest allegations are unfounded by stating the following in their public response:

The BMA’s deaccession provides a fresh opportunity for curators to reshape the narratives told within its walls and to present a fairer and more fulsome art history. Equally, this effort acknowledges the museum’s dual responsibility to create an internally equitable structure and an externally equitable and mutual relationship with its diverse publics. 

Brice Marden - 3, 1987. Oil on linen, 84 x 60 in (213.4 x 152.4 cm). Image via Sotheby's

Baltimore Museum Deaccessioning - Last Minute Resolution?

The Maryland Attorney General’s office remained silent regarding the investigation while the intense situation turned into something else after the Baltimore Museum of Art reported in a press release that it decided to pause the selling of three works from the permanent collection. The shocking last-minute decision was suddenly brought by the institution just two hours before two of the works were to be auctioned in New York after a private session the BMA’s leadership had with the Association of Art Museum Directors.

In this particular case, the complexity of the deaccessioning of BMA’s works of art indicates a new paradigm based on a continuous process of commodification of museum collections that apparently no longer tend to be public good but a result of market-driven inclinations. That leads us further into the dissemination of the given case and the above-mentioned allegations that seem to be on point.

According to the museum, the two main reasons for the deaccessioning are based on the larger representation of women and artists of color and the improvement of labor issues. Under the current social crisis and extremely important issues regarding race, gender, and class in the American context, the BMA’s agenda seems like a perfect excuse for major commercialization of their profit-led interests.

Although this may seem like a utopia, despite the fact the American museums are, as mentioned in the introduction, privately owned spaces, their ethical standpoint at the current time of crisis should be directed towards their role as public spaces where emancipatory practices should empower the local communities in a struggle for a better tomorrow. Ideally, the museums should not in any case even if funded by wealthy donors succumb to the demands of the art market that, like any other market, tends to find new modalities to keep the power (mostly white and male) structures abundant and well.

Featured image: Baltimore Museum of Art. Photograph by Eli Pousson, 2018, image via Baltimore Heritage (Wikimedia Commons).

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