For those of you that don’t know me, I spent pretty much all of 2015 working on a deaccessioning project for my graduate internship. The project evolved into my master’s capstone, and has allowed me to extend that experience and expertise to my work at other museums and historical societies. I don’t consider myself an expert, but I do feel I have a solid foundation in the practical and ethical sides of deaccessioning in the museum world.
I’m sure, by now, everyone has an idea of what AAM and AAMD‘s stance on deaccessioning objects is, but just to reiterate: AAM will only allow proceeds from deaccessioned objects to be used for direct care of the collection (which is still a grey area but that’s a whole other conversation), or to replace the object being sold for something that better fits the mission of the museum. AAMD only believes in the latter half of this statement. AASLH is more aligned with AAM (good lord all of these double-A acronyms!), but historic houses and historical societies are a bit of a grey area because often times the buildings are considered part of the collection. But they all agree on one fundamental area: proceeds from the sale of deaccessioned objects or artworks are not to be used for operational needs.
What the Berkshire Museum has proposed to do is wrong. It flies in the face of every ethics policy, quite possibly including its own. Deaccessioning works that no longer help the museum carry out its mission is one thing, and it seems like this is the argument the museum is standing on. Van Shields, the executive director of the museum, told the New York Times that the museum can’t care for the artwork if they don’t exist. That the board views its decision as putting the needs of the organization before the needs of national organizations (like AAM). This, to me, screams that the board is failing in their duty to protect the collection and uphold the ethical responsibilities they have to it.
The point of museums is to share their holdings with the public, keeping these objects in perpetuity in the public trust. It’s fine to look at your collection and say, “what isn’t serving our needs anymore? What do we need?” This is actually a healthy practice that I think more museums need to take on. Deaccessioning works in this way generally would mean talking with area museums about their needs, and seeing how works can move amongst museums, but stay in the public trust.
What the Berkshire Museum has chosen to do is sell 40 works of art at auction – which means most museums will not be able to afford the art, and the art will more than likely end up in private collections. Out of the public trust.
It is this decision, coupled with the decision to use the proceeds from this auction to help supplement the endowment and renovate the building, that has the museum community (myself included) upset by the decision of the board and the executive director of the Berkshire Museum. There is precedent for museums to use funds from a deaccession to create an acquisitions or collections fund that over time will grow and allow the museum to care for the remaining objects. But this is not the case at the Berkshire Museum. Choosing to view your collection as liquid assets is a dangerous road to go down, one that museums like the Detroit Institute of Art have recently faced. How can you make a decision like this and expect future donors to bring their objects to your museum, knowing that you and your board view each piece of art as a cash value, ready to be sold off when times get tough?
These are extremely difficult financial times for museums across the board, but this does not mean we look to our collections to replenish our coffers. It means we sit down and figure out how to mature and grow in the 21st century. How do we attract new, young donors that will financially support us in the years to come? Can we increase admissions prices? What new, different ways can we approach financial stress that doesn’t involve selling off the collection piece by piece?
Joint Statement on the Berkshire Museum Proposal from AAM and AAMD
Two Rockwells headed to auction to fund new vision for the Berkshire Museum – Berkshire Eagle, July 12, 2017
Berkshire Museum Plan to Sell Norman Rockwell Paintings Has Art World Up In Arms – The Two-Way: NPR