MUSEUMS AS SOCIETY’S MIMESIS AND THE IMPORTANCE OF DEACCESSIONING

The 17th century definition of Museum is: “Collection or assemblage of noteworthy or high-value things. Not always a collection of objects per se, but muse-worthy congregations of noble persons or their representations.”[1] From centuries, art museums have been developing their collections for the benefit of present and future generations; however, the acquisition process has been a topic of harsh examination in recent days.

The evolution of a museum bears much similarity to the evolution of a city; like a city it grows and develops a changing geography through the evolving juxtaposition of its objects and collections over time. A museum is not a leviathan, a mausoleum or a bank vault; like a city, it grows and develops a geography through the burgeoning intercalation of objects and collections, and the uses and interpretations to which they are put by those who participate in it.[2] Whenever the expansion of the collection has been done by donation or acquisition through the endowment fund, it is generally applauded. But as collections accumulate more depth and differentiations, the museum requires clearer definition and refinement of their functions in the whole. So, why a huge backlash always follows a formal decision by the governing body to re-access those objects?

Collection stewardship requires planning, resources, and professional acumen to ensure just the basic maintenance of a dynamic collection that supports the museum’s mission, whilst properly serving its community. The expenses related to conservation, exhibition, analysis, and documentation of the collection weighs down the heart of a museum’s mission of public service, causing dramatic changes as necessary. This translates in a constant evolution of the collection serving as a reflection on the society’s maturity. For example, the deaccessoning case of San Francisco Museum analysed by Anne Stone in 2014 found that 95.2% of the collection was in storage, which translates in $4.1 M usd annual maintenance expenses. With 90% of the collection’s value residing in less that 5% of the collection’s object, the academic found that: (i) 82% of it comes from direct gifts of bequests; (ii), 7% comes from long-term loan; and (iii), 7% comes from museum purchases.[3] More importantly, these purchased objects are exhibited over 3 times the rate of donated objects.[4]

The term “deaccessioning” entered in the public consciousness the first time in 1972, following the controversy surrounding the MET to partially cover the purchase of Velázquez portrait Juan de la Pareja.[5] The decision to deaccession is mostly made to improve the quality, scope, and appropriateness of the collections, keeping in mind the museum’s mission and long-term goals. Museum administrators need to explore refinement and expurgation as a natural corollary of the evolution process. Deaccessions are often necessary to refine collections to shape the museum’s collecting character.[6] For example, previous models of museum collections have tended to focus on white-male artists, especially the permanent collections of America’s museums have a disproportionate amount of male and overwhelmingly white, according to a study published by the Public Library of Science.[7] This has led to public outcry, particularly among women and African-Americans, culminating in multiple online petitions to put a stop to this. For example, the Morgan Library & Museum initiative in New York to “ONLY exhibit solo shows by women in 2020.”[8] This aim for diversification has also permeated the market, bringing new artist records, such as Lee Krasner’s The Eye is the First Circle (1960) which was bought for $11.7m with fees at Sotheby’s auction in New York in May.[9]

The need for coherent curatorial guidelines in the development of museum is inherent on the community it inhabits. “Deaccessioning of collections is not about lowering standards. It is dependent on good judgment and responsibility, and on being true to core values and beliefs. These are the same attitudes which should guide…acquisitions. In the past, there has been a great deal of mindless collecting, along with poor documentation and care of public collections. Deaccessioning is about making difficult but realistic decisions in the interests of the museum and its community.”[10] In a way, responsible collecting is a form of communication with the public and a provision of social justice, which in the past has been overlooked.

The Kitchen Garden on the Eyot (1946) by Leonora Carrington
Work purchased by SFMOMA’s deaccession 2019.

Proceeds from a deaccessioned work are usually used to acquire other works of art or sometimes even as operating funds to build an endowment when the museum is in desperate need. This was seen in the sale of Mark Rothko’s Untitled (1960) from the collection of SOFMOMA, which fetched $50.1 million at Sotheby’s in New York in June 2019. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art acquired 11 works by 10 artists to fill in historical gaps and diversify its holdings explaining in a statement, “This is just the beginning of what we will be able to accomplish with this fund, which allows us to broaden the scope of the stories we are able to tell in our galleries.”[11] SFMOMA’s deaccession of an artwork highlighted this need for museums to be able to maintain its fund and operational costs.

Contrasting with Rothko’s carefully analysed deaccessoning strategy, Di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art in Northern California is now taking desperate deaccessoning measures to squander most of their 1,600 works. In a radical departure from its original mission, they have to sell off the majority of its collection just to stay open. The director has spoken out saying: “This is a textbook example of completing the transition from a private individual’s extraordinary endeavour to it being a public-facing institution. [. . .] We’ve got a great program to deliver to the community, but in order to keep doing it, the board has made these important decisions.”[12] Every museum context is different, given the institution’s unique objectives and the peculiar assemblage of objects under their purview, and so specific criteria are often unhelpful and have tended to migrate into the territory of deaccession apology by blaming the object from some inherent deficiency.[13]

The apparent controversy of deaccession over recent years has only been called into demand with museums in desperate need; but the real urge should be the professional capacity of art investment management in order to avoid these desperate scenarios like the Di Rosa Center or the Berkeley Art Museum case in 2017. Selling these treasured assets actually poses a debilitating economic ripple effect beyond the museum, not to mention a profound spiritual loss to the community. Deaccession, in other words, may turn off donors who, by their very nature, value stability.

Di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art

Current trends in museum deaccessioning call for greater transparency in their policies and procedures, as well as a clearer definition of the roles and responsibilities that a museum holds. Transparency about the deaccession process has almost always turned out to be the best course, and indeed almost every case of concealment in the deaccession process has turned out poorly, in part from the terrible public relations fallout, but even more so in the relatively poor fiduciary duty resulted from these private decisions.[14] In Artemundi, we believe that every museum should aim for fidelity to its collecting mission by accessioning just the exact mosaic of artworks to satisfy its collecting goals; however, granting such selection is often not in fact solely under one voice, but a collective voice that will be encumbered with excess, redundancy and dross, where refinement, revision and expurgation is necessary. This is why we have been in the development on a new investment fund that will provide sustainability to museums while keeping their integrity intact.


[1] Gammon, Martin. Deaccessioning and Its Discontents: A Critical History. , 2018. P. 68

[2] Ibid p. 2

[3] Ibid p. 47

[4] Ibid p. 49

[5] Ibid p. ix

[6] Ibid. p. 32

[7] Editorial, Artsy. “Study Finds U.S. Museum Collections Are 85% White and 87% Male.” Artsy, 19 Feb. 2019, www.artsy.net/news/artsy-editorial-study-85-artists-museum-collections-white-87-male.

[8] Armstrong, Annie. “Online Petition Challenges Morgan Library to ‘Only Exhibit Solo Shows by Women’ in 2020 -.” ARTnews, 19 Feb. 2019, www.artnews.com/2019/02/19/online-petition-challenges-morgan-library-exhibit-solo-shows-women-2020/.

[9] McGivern, Hannah, et al. “Top Five Acquisitions of the Month.” The Art Newspaper, The Art Newspaper, 10 July 2019, www.theartnewspaper.com/gallery/top-five-acquisitions-this-month-july-2019.

[10] Ainslie, P. “Deaccessioning as a collections management tool”. In S. Knell (Ed.). Museums and the future of collecting (1999). Brookfield, VT: Ashgate. P. 178

[11] Selvin, Claire. “Aiming to Diversify Collection, SFMOMA Purchases 11 Works with Profits from $50 M. Rothko Sale -.” ARTnews, 27 June 2019, www.artnews.com/2019/06/26/sfmoma-acquisitions-rothko-deaccession/.

[12] Editorial, Artsy. “California Art Center to Deaccession the Majority of Its Collection.” Artsy, 10 July 2019, www.artsy.net/news/artsy-editorial-contemporary-art-center-northern-california-will-deaccession-majority-collection.

[13] Gammon, Martin. Deaccessioning and Its Discontents: A Critical History. p. 2018

[14]. Ibid p. 35

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