Museums, Art, and the Public Good: Some Thoughts on Deaccessioning

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113 Responses

  1. Avatar Vikram Bath says:

    I like Saltz’s idea of only allowing museums to sell to each other because it keeps the art in public view.

    I’m accepting of this idea. It’s the museum’s. I guess they can sell it to whom they want to, and if that means only other museums, then that’s that.

    I do think it should be acknowledged, however, that this may mean they get less for the painting, and that this means the seller will have fewer options than if they opened up the bidding to everyone.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Vikram Bath says:

      I don’t mind the possibility of a lower price if it keeps the art public.

      The role of a museum is to keep the art in trust for the public. The role of the museum is not to sustain the currently high prices of the art market. Interestingly Saltz noted that the Monet probably is not that hot on the art market right now (by comparison) to the contemporary artists that super-rich people like to collect. A Gerhard Richter could probably fetch 30 or so million.Report

      • The role of the museum is not to sustain the currently high prices of the art market

        I assume you meant to say “lower”?Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Monet’s are no longer protected by copyright, so the image, despite who owns the physical painting, is part in the public domain. This painting’s sale this allows other art to become public seems like a net good to me.

        I’d rather see such a sail entail strings; every so-many years it be included in some sort of public exhibition, etc. A rule that only other museums can purchase a work results in less money going into the purchase of other works; and that seems more detrimental to the goal of making works available to the public.Report

  2. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    Of course, it’s a pity when the public doesn’t get the benefit of great art. It’s a shame and an opportunity lost when art gets held back that way. And many wealthy patrons of the arts of course display their art as a means of signalling their wealth and status, which has benefits and downsides.

    But someone has to pay for art, after all. Large-scale museums are ridiculously expensive undertakings; proper curation and preservation of art takes incredibly specialized knowledge and tools and environmental controls.

    So that means some art is just plain going to have to be owned privately. And when you buy something, you own it and you can do what you want with it. That’s part of the price of having art at all in a monetized world. Which leads me to see a museum selling off one of its paintings to keep itself afloat and saying, “meh.”Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:


      I am not opposed to the private sale and ownership of art even if the art market can seem obscene sometime. I think yesterday or so, I saw a report that said that there are about 8000-10000 really big art buyers in the world (Larry’s List did the report). Felix Salmon once mentioned on Slate Money that there is a place in Switzerland where a lot of art is kept in storage because the really rich people own more art than they can possibly display.

      I do think there is a strong legal objection that can be made when a museum does not do their fiduciary duties and just plays as servants to the really rich. Yes the really rich do make many donations including art to museums but there should be a legal line that keeps the museums committed to their role as a fiduciary to the public.

      Now the story could still have a happy ending. Maybe the Monet will get donated to another museum.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Switzerland’s reason d’etre as a country seems to be providing all sorts of services to the really wealthy at times. Besides the famous Swiss banking services, most of its exports are luxury goods of various sorts, and the art storage place seems like the equivalent of Swiss banking for collectors. Its one thing to buy art and display it at one of your many homes or apartments. It least the art is being viewed somewhere. Its another thing to buy art and keep it locked away where nobody could see it. That just seems elitists and mean-spirited.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        the really rich people own more art than they can possibly display.

        I don’t get this at all. Do they also commission music that’s never played and novels that no one is allowed to read?Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        They might just commission books (novel-length biographies) that are too horrible to readReport

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        It’s like the difference between eccentric and crazy; rich people are “collectors”, not rich people are “hoarders”Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Come to think of it, they might be investments. So keeping them someplace temperature and humidity controlled where they won’t be handled makes sense.Report

      • How is this any worse than owning the copyright to something that you never intend to release?Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @kolohe @mike-schilling

        Felix Salmon also had an anecdote where he asked a very rich art collector if he ever bought something for pure pleasure/aesthetics and did not expect it to appreciate in value and said that the art collector looked at him (Felix) like he was mad. So it is just another form of investment, yes.

        I also think there is some kind of tax dodge by keeping it in storage abroad. A lot of times art collections are hit for big estate taxes when a rich collector dies.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        How is this any worse than owning the copyright to something that you never intend to release?

        The book business is weird. Say you’re an author that gets $50K as your normal advance. Say further that you’ve written some out-of-print books that your fans would love to buy, but there are only enough of them to justify a $25K advance. If you agree to have them republished, suddenly you’re a $25K-advance author. The publisher won’t print as many of your next book, or spend enough to market it, and poor sales will be a self-fulfilling prediction. This sounds dumb, I know, but it was explained to me by an SF author I used to know on Usenet. (You might have heard of him; he’s got a Hugo.) The inexorable downhill slope is also part of the plot of Donald Westlake’s The Hook. (Pause now for all the people who think that hiring mangers must know what they’re doing to defend publishers too.)

        What you will see these days is that, if the rights revert to the author, he’ll reissue it as an E-book. That’s different enough not to affect his main business, and of course the low setup costs justify reissuing it with low sales.Report

      • A friend of mine actually bought back the rights to his book so that he could (re-)release an ebook version. The publisher had an ebook version, then decided to pull it when they stopped publishing physical copies. Not sure why. Maybe so that he would buy the rights back.Report

      • Avatar aaron david in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        “What you will see these days is that, if the rights revert to the author, he’ll reissue it as an E-book. ”

        Or have someone like Subterranean Press do a limited of it. Tim Powers does this a lot. Keeps collectors happy, and keeps the author in the right advance rank. As far as advances go, I always figured that the publishers did like that to put their thumb on the scales of the market just that much more. Not that it will matter much soon, as they will go the way of the record companies now that e-books keep growing.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        yes, the rich do “invest” in artwork. Guy I know had a full-scale model of the Colliseum in toothpicks. Not quite sure who wants that, but for the right price, I’m sure it’s for sale.Report

    • Avatar Francis in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Burt: If Bill Gates wants to build a house (with after-tax dollars), buy art on the open market (with after-tax dollars), put the art in the house and charge people an entrance fee, he’s welcome to do so. But that’s a private gallery, not a museum. Opening and running a museum is a public trust; in return the donors get tax breaks.

      So I think there is a sharp distinction between artists and galleries selling art that has never been in a public trust and a museum doing so.

      And Lee: the vast majority of museums have enormous collections that are not accessible to the regular visitor. Permanent collections are much larger than display space. One good reason for museums to de-accession is for one museum’s second-tier piece — rarely shown — to become another museum’s first tier piece — on permanent display.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Francis says:

        I am will aware that much art held by museums is in storage and only brought out on special occassions if at all. This Monet picture is different because it was part of the permanent collection.

        In addition to your distinction between selling art that was never in the public trust and museums selling art, I think we also need a distinction between a museum selling from storage and its permanent collection. The latter is much worse.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Francis says:

        Certainly an entity charged with administering its assets for the benefit of the public (we can call that a public trust as shorthand here, and sidestep a lot of hair-splitting about the differences between different kinds of entities with different kinds of missions) is governed by different rules than a private collector, @francis , but that does not mean that the business judgment rule has no role in evaluating the conduct of a public trust. Sometimes, the sale of an asset makes good business sense.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I don’t own “Thief”. I don’t own “Grim Fandango”. At least, I only own a copy of both of them. They may not exactly be in the public domain, but they are available to all who wish to consume them.

      We have an Art Lending Library in Braddock. I’d wish to see more of that, as well (even if it ends up being mostly trite stuff, it’s what people want).Report

  3. Avatar Kazzy says:

    First off, I learned a new word today: deaccessioning. Thanks, Saul!

    If museums can only sell to other museums, than we’ll need to keep building new museums. Or creating less art. The former is obviously preferable to the latter, but presents greater logistical problems.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Kazzy says:

      This is a logical fallacy. Even if it is true, building more museums is a much more worthy way of spending money than others.* There are lots of regional museums in the United States and internationally that would love to add a Monet to their collection even if it is considered one of his lesser works. Requiring museums to sell to other museums is one way to make sure that regional museums do get some works by the greatest and most important artists. This would allow people outside major metropolitan aras to actually view Monet and similar artists in the flesh rather than on the Internet.

      *Yes, I realize this is a liberal value judgment.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Why is it a logical fallacy?

        The world’s museums can only hold so much art. If museums keep exchanging art pieces with none of them leaving museums’ holdings, how do you create space for new art? I suppose you could add on to existing museums, in which case I amend my statement from “building new museums” to “building new museum spaces”.

        And, I’ll remind you that I agree that building new museum spaces is preferable to not creating art. It just creates logistical difficulties.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        It assumes that all museums are essentially filled to the gills with art. There isn’t any evidence of this. There are probably dozens or hundreds of regional museums in places like Pittsburgh or Little Rock that would love to have a Monet in their collection. Sellign the painting to them would have a net benefit for everybody.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to LeeEsq says:

        That isn’t a logical fallacy. And I didn’t say this problem was necessarily current. But we eventually run out of space if we keep adding inventory, never take away, and never expand.

        And how is the Little Rock museum going to pay for a Monet? Do they have $14M? Or does MoMa just eat the lost value?Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        MoMa should eat the lost value. As Saul mentioned above, the law states that art museums hold the art in trust for the public under the supervision of their state’s Attorney General. A trust is fiduciary relationship where the trustee holds legal title over the property in the trust for the benefit of the beneficiary who holds equitable title in the trust. This means that art museums are not allowed to sell art like a private person would. Selling at loss value would be more fitting with the mission of art museums if it keeps art in the public view.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to LeeEsq says:

        But if selling it privately for top dollar allows them to cut admission costs or build a new wing or buy new art… what then?

        You presume that your interpretation of what the ‘public’ wants is necessarily what the public actually wants.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I realize this is a liberal value judgment

        MoMa should eat the lost value.

        I was pretty blunt on Saul’s FB post the other day. It comes down, of course, to me not sharing that value judgement, and consequently finding the “eat the lost value” comment as mystifying as I assume you find the suggestion that it’s ok to sell to the highest bidder even if they stick it in a vault or even use it for a bonfire.

        If it’s truly a publicly owned museum, then of course the public’s representatives can put any constraints they want on it, however wise or foolish. But if it’s a private non-profit, I disagree with the claim that the public owns the art, and I think it’s inappropriate to tell it how to manage its collections, just as it would be inappropriate to tell Red Cross what humanitarian needs it should privatize.

        In general, there seems a big gulf between those who seek extensive public control over a wide variety of activities, and those who seek to prevent extensive public control over them, and I suppose we’ll just never agree on such things.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Every dollar eaten for the sake of that art is a dollar that can’t be spent elsewhere. The question is not just “should we spend the money on X” but includes “instead of on A-W, Y, and Z.”Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to LeeEsq says:


        There was a documentary that came out a few years ago about Harry and Dorothy Vogel. They were a NYC couple that amassed a huge art collection. They did it on very modest budgets because he worked for the Post Office and she was a librarian. As far as I can tell, they did it through savings, being alive when these now very expensive artists were starting their careers, being a bit of a curiosity, and also through bartering. They took care of an artist’s cat in exchange for a piece of art as an example.

        Their very tiny apartment was jam-packed with modern and contemporary art by leading artists. The Vogels eventually told the National Gallery in D.C. that they could take all or most of it if they handled all the shipping and moving expenses. There was more art than the National Gallery knew what to do with. The National’s solution was something with a title like Great Art for Great States. Basically they gave a museum in each state fifty pieces of modern art by people like Cy Twombly, Frank Stella, Sol LeWitt, and many more.

        This seems like a much better way to serve the public.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to LeeEsq says:

        It’s a moral and intellectual trap to dig into the notion that supporting one sort of cause or charity takes away from other causes, @will-truman .

        I’m just sitting there watching The Voice and suddenly I’ve got an earnest-looking Sarah McLachlan telling me, in effect, that if I don’t give all my money to the SPCA right now I might as well be personally using a weapon to beat that too-skinny Basset Hound puppy staring up at the camera out of a cage with those woestruck pleading eyes. But just as I’m going to check my bank account to see if I really can send Sarah some money, I’m implored by e-mail to support the Innocence Project, and if I give money to Sarah and her sad puppy then I’m letting an innocent man languish in prison. I’m not Bill Gates, I only have so much money!

        So it must be the case that if I send money to Sarah McLachlan and the sad abused puppy, I’m not imputed with any sort of approval of punishing the innocent, or that I’m somehow a bad person. Aren’t I a good person for supporting the prevention of cruelty to animals? If that were not true then each and every one of us is a moral monster for not donating all that we have other than what is minimally necessary for subsistence so that malaria can be fought in tropical Africa. The standard for what is at least minimally acceptable can’t be quite that high.

        Similarly, I’d resist the notion that someone is somehow behaving badly because they support museums instead of charities or causes that I’d prefer they support instead. If we’re going to say that museums are good things (and no one seems to be arguing otherwise), then supporting museums is a commendable thing to do, not a window of opportunity to morally criticize a donor.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to LeeEsq says:

        @burt-likko I get what you’re saying, but I think the standards of justification are higher with government than with personal expenses (including charitable causes). While X vs A-W, Y, Z is true regardless, we only need to justify our own spending to ourselves. Governments have wider accountability and a greater need to do it right.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Frankly, I just wish Sarah McLachlan would try to make another album as good as Fumbling Towards Ecstasy instead of making me look at photographs of abused puppies.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Space awesome, counselor.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Every minute she spends on the puppies is a minute spent not making quality music. But only if we assume that is where the time surplus would go…Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to LeeEsq says:

        you wouldn’t believe the skullduggery that went into Pittsburgh’s collections.
        I think I honestly prefer bribing/blackmailing museums to the alternatives.Report

    • Avatar Notme in reply to Kazzy says:


      Saul has always said he wanted the govt to spend more money on museums. We all know he feels that society should value his MFA more so he and his fellows dont have to slum and work in TV or go to law school.Report

  4. Avatar dhex says:

    art in the moma is already inaccessible to people who cannot afford or don’t want to travel to nyc. how much difference does selling to a private donor make in this case?

    then again, i think there’s art and there’s AAAAARRRRRT and this is far more concerned with the latter category and ignoring that we are absolutely, deliriously, delightfully drowning in the former category. hail satan and all that.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to dhex says:

      The Monet painting is accessible to the millions of residents who live within NYC’s metropolitan area and the millions that visit NYC every year. This is many more people that get to view it, at least potentially, than the number of people that would get to look at it if some rich person buys it.

      Even if the Monet goes to a regional museum in a smaller metropolitan area like Portland, Oregon or Charlotte, North Carolina than the number of people who could potentially look at it would still be much greater than the number that would look at it if it was a taking point for a rich person.

      Ensuring that the fine plastic arts are accessible to the maximum number of people is a worthy goal. Man does not live by fan art alone.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to LeeEsq says:


      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        The plastic arts is an archaic terms for things like sculpting or art that takes the form of a physical, tangible object as opposed to more abstract art like theater or music.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Archaic, eh? Then I’m excused for not being familiar with it!Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to LeeEsq says:


        Just because you’re not as old as Ridgely doesn’t mean you’re not archaic. C’mon. I’m probably the youngest contributor here and I’m turning 30 this year. The rest of you guys are ancient.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I think that at this point we can all put aside our differences and glare at Murali.Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to LeeEsq says:

        “Man does not live by fan art alone.”

        the millions of americans who never go to museums would disagree.Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to LeeEsq says:

        tl;dr me: #pigdestroyerkennedycenterspecialReport

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        dhex, they are objectively wrong and need to be educated in the error of their ways. ;).Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Lord Palumbo’s got a good deal of his art collection available for public view. It’s worth seeing if you’re ever in Pittsburgh.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

        The plastic arts is an archaic terms for things like sculpting or art that takes the form of a physical, tangible object as opposed to more abstract art like theater or music.

        Aficionados of digital art refer to this old-fashioned art form as “meat art”.Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to LeeEsq says:

        “dhex, they are objectively wrong and need to be educated in the error of their ways. ;).”

        you smiley, but you do not smiley.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to LeeEsq says:


        A more serious question. Suppose the museum going public and the not museum going public is even for all intents and purposes and so is the population between those who believe and don’t believe in government spending on the arts and museums.

        Does the Sports Bar ist Kreig always go to the antis?

        Is there any viable reason why the non-museum crowd should win this policy debate if both sides are numerically equal? You mention millions of people who don’t go to museums but many museums do receive hundred of thousands if not millions of visitors a year both residents and tourists. Museums do provide good revenue for many locations and also educational opportunities.Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to LeeEsq says:


        don’t misuse the sports bar metaphor. it is sublime, but of no application here.

        “Does the Sports Bar ist Kreig always go to the antis?”

        no, it goes to whomever has the most power and money, which is what makes it a proxy rather than a representation. i would ask you to meditate upon this distinction before invoking my life’s sole distinction so cavalierly.

        simpler answer: if the discussion were about sports stadiums, would we be having this conversation? of course not.

        proxies all the way down.Report

  5. Avatar j r says:

    Saul, you say this:

    MoMa is following the general ethical guidelines on when and how museums should deaccession and sell art. but I still think there is something uneasy about public property becoming private property. There should be an extra dimension into the deaccessioning debate and that should include how the public benefits from a sale and whether a sale would buy more art that the public wants.

    And link to the Art Museum Director’s ethical guidelines, which includes these considerations:
    • Does the object have special historical or cultural relevance to the city,
    state, university, or college in which the museum is located?

    • If objects are to be sold, would it be appropriate to explore sale to, or
    exchange with, another educational or cultural institution to help ensure
    the object remains in a public collection?

    • Is the deaccessioning being conducted in a way that maximizes the
    benefit to the museum and to the public?

    What exactly is missing from the ethical guidelines that you think ought to be included?Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to j r says:

      “…whether a sale would buy more art that the public wants.”

      What if the public doesn’t want more art? I remember reading about the NY Public Library buying a $100K bible or some such thing. I remember thinking, “How many New Yorkers could have been given a hot meal with that money?”

      Now, I get that it’s not quite that simple. It is possible that book was purchased with funds specifically donated for its acquisition. But I think the broader point stands: Should museums use public money to buy million-dollar pieces of art while people still sleep on their steps?Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Kazzy says:

        So, this guy goes to the rare book store and asks if they have anything new. The owner says “We had something kind of weird come in yesterday. It was an old German Bible, in terrible shape. It didn’t look salable, so we threw it away.”

        “Old, how old?”

        “Really old, in a weird old typeface. I never heard of the publisher. Gottfried or Groberg, something like that.”


        “Yeah, that sounds right.”

        “You threw away a Gutenberg Bible? Do you have any idea how historic, how unique, how fishing priceless it was?”

        “Not this one. It was all scribbled over by some jerk called Martin Luther.”Report

      • Avatar Road Scholar in reply to Kazzy says:


    • Avatar j r in reply to j r says:

      I’ve jacked up the blockquotes in that comment.Report

  6. Avatar Kolohe says:


    Also obligatory

    It almost goes without saying (but only almost, so I’m going to say it) that there’s a definite snobbery / elitism present in many of the links, particularly the ‘accessibility’ one.

    The NEA reports that, as of 2012, only 33 percent of American adults attended one of the “benchmark” arts—classical music, jazz, opera, theater, ballet, or visits to an art museum or gallery.

    Yes, if we define art as anything not on in the movies, not on tv, not on the internet, not in music clubs, not in architecture, not in streetscapes – and as the link indicates, not anything that a Spanish as a first language speaker would gravitate towards – the art landscape in America is bleak indeed.

    (though the decline in elderly attendance kinda surprised me. The only Kennedy center and Arena stage events I’ve been to in the past few years was when an elderly neighbor had schedule conflicts and couldn’t go – and we were definitely below the median age of the audience) (and I’m old enough to remember when the thought of the Patriots cheating would have been laughable because they were perennially so terrible)Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Kolohe says:


      Is it a little snobby? Maybe or probably but it could very well be true. I think that most of the times I have been at art events, the crowds are split between over 50 and the young (20 and 30 somethings). This is especially true for performance art like theatre and dance. Museum shows are always more mixed age-wise.


    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Kolohe says:

      Free Art days are ALWAYS well attended, at least at the Carnegie. The kids show up in droves.Report

  7. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    It seems to me that there are other issues here as well.

    The Portland Library, for example, has a huge and diverse collection of books that are all available to the public for reading and viewing (though not necessarily taking home). The Portland Art museum has a huge and diverse collection of works of art, of which a very small percentage is available to the public. Most of the art is kept in storage; most of it hasn’t been displayed by the museum in decades, and quite a bit of it has never been displayed by the museum ever.

    What does it mean to the public, then, that these pieces are held in a public trust? How is the public benefited by having them remain public property?

    If art museums displayed all (or even most) of their art, I would be more amenable to the argument that they should have to sell to other museums. But most museums keep some art to be displayed, and a whole lot of other art to simply act as assets. The idea of turning those assets liquid — especially if those liquid assets would then be used to purchase art that *would* be put on display — does not seem to be so back-and-white bad for the public.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      The SF Library also has a lot of books and other documents that you can view in their research stacks but can’t take out. I am not sure if you can make photocopies or not. They also have plenty of books that you can take out including books that are not on the general shelves. There is a section of the main library called the Page Desk where you can request books that are not on the main shelf.

      I am sympathetic that storage space is not infinite and neither are budgets for restoration and upkeep. Lee did make a good point above though. This piece was part of the Permanent collection. The Monet was not sitting in storage for decades and MoMa’s justification for selling it is weak considering that they have plenty of art from the same time period and I think it would raise to scandal and outrage if MoMa said “We are selling all of our pre-1913 art because we no longer consider it modern.”Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I can’t tell if you’re purposefully dodging my point or not. Let me try again:

        You run the ABC Museum. You have 500 works of art, of which only 200 are pieces which you might conceivably ever put on display — and which at any given time you only ever have 50 on actual display. You sell one of these pieces (doesn’t matter which) in order to purchase another piece that you want more for whatever reason, and that new piece will go up on the recently emptied wall pace or be placed with the other 450 that are already in storage.

        Let’s say you sell the piece to the XYZ Museum, whether by choice or by law. Museum XYZ either puts that painting on display and put subsequently something else in storage, or — just as likely — they take that painting, which they purchased primarily to be an asset, and they box it up and put it in storage where it stays in perpetuity.

        The question I am asking is: Why is doing this in the public interest? If you have a system where most of the “public art” is simply held as an asset and the public is not allowed to view it, what does it really mean to say that it’s “public?”

        If Museums displayed all of their pieces or even just made non-displayed items available for public viewing in some other way, then I get why they are “public.” But museums don’t work this way, and so I am wondering out loud what the public benefit is. If PAM has over half of its collection stored away in such a fashion that neither myself nor my kids will ever be able to experience them in any way in our lifetime, what is the difference to “the public” that they are in storage under the auspices of PAM, and not in the collection go Bill Gates, who may or may not make them available to special shows in the future?Report

      • Just as a supplement to @tod-kelly , and perhaps as a way of clarifying his point (which I completely agree with):

        Just because this particular piece has historically been part of their permanent collection and thus on display, doesn’t the curator have a right to decide that he doesn’t think it appropriate to continue displaying that piece as part of the permanent collection when he has something he thinks is a better fit? I mean….curation itself strikes me as often being no less “art” than the works that get displayed.

        In any event, the point is that I think we’d all agree that there’s nothing wrong with a curator rotating works in and out of the permanent collection on display. I think we’d also generally agree that there’s little wrong with selling a work that is just sitting in a warehouse or for which the museum lacks space.

        It seems to me that opposing a sale because the piece is part of the permanent collection is not so much an objection to a violation of some sort of trust as it is an objection to active curating of collections.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        The reasoning does not add up here. MOMA said they are selling the Monet because it “is an example of an Impressionist style that precedes the starting point of the museum’s painting collection.”

        As I noted above, they have plenty of Cezzanes and Van Goghs from around 1887 when the Monet was painted. I don’t think they can quite justify selling based on year alone and something with the line does not pass the smell test for me. What is the starting point of the museum’s collection? Are they going to get rid of all paintings that were done before that starting point?Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @saul-degraw, you still haven’t answered @tod-kelly’s question. I ask because I have essentially the same question.

        Why is it better to have a painting sitting in some museum’s storage area, maybe coming out for display once every couple of years than to be sitting in some private collector’s house where it maybe gets loaned out to a pubic exhibition every few years?

        What’s the difference in how much access the public actually gets to that paining?Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @j-r @tod-kelly

        Why do you assume that if there was a law that required selling from one museum to another that it would go from one storage facility to another?

        My guess is that it will be bought up by a museum with less of an Impressionist collection (or whatever collection) and be put on display and accessible to the public. I am not saying that museums should not be able to sell their art and neither is Jerry Saltz. We are suggesting that museums first sell or only sell amongst themselves instead of private collectors.

        Even on the private market there is a good chance of it just ending up in storage as a rich person waits for it to appreciate.

        I’d rather it be in storage of a museum who can take it out, put it on display, loan it to other museums for special tours and exhibits, etc. That way it stays on view by the public.Report

      • @saul-degraw Why can’t it be a combination of “the curator doesn’t think this piece makes sense to display because it predates the period he wants to display,” “the piece doesn’t do a particularly good job showing the evolution that spawned the period the curator wants to display,” and “we can buy some absolutely great stuff that better fits what the curator wants to display if we sell this thing because it’s worth a huge chunk of change”?

        I also don’t read the museum’s justification as being a reference to the date of the painting. The museum explicitly emphasizes that the piece is an example of “an impressionist style that predates the starting point of the museums painting collection.” I read that as arguing that the painting is more emblematic of an earlier form of Impressionism that didn’t, in the curator’s view, have much of a direct influence on the modern period. The actual date of the painting, then, is not what’s important – what’s important is when the particular subset of Impressionism it represents was created.

        It’s been about 6 years since I’ve been to the MoMA, and I’m no expert on art history, but I do love art museums, and especially when they help me understand art history. I thought at the time that the MoMA was almost uniquely effective in that regard – in fact, it totally changed my view of about 75 percent of modern art (even good curation couldnt get me to say something nice about Rothko). But, if my memory is correct, I also vaguely recall thinking that the Monet seemed out of place in a way that Van Gogh and Cezanne did not. You could see the latter pair’s influence on, say, Picasso because of how the museum was curated, but IIRC (and I probably don’t) the Monet didn’t really provide any context, and almost seemed like it needed more context.

        Regardless, the point is that curation is hardly a science and that a $15 million painting that the curator doesn’t think should be on display doesn’t do anyone any good sitting in a warehouse.

        I’d even go so far as to say that public access to art is on the whole increased by this decision- if the piece wasn’t useful for showing the evolution of modern art and wasn’t independently bringing people into the museum, then its value to the museum’s mission was probably just a fraction of its potential auction value. On the other hand, the fact that it’s a Monet and that it was once hanging in the MoMA makes it probably heavily overvalued by potential private buyers. This means a windfall for the museum with which it presumably may be able to acquire multiple pieces that actually do a much better job at educating the public on the evolution of modern art but which may be less valued by private collectors.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Why do you assume that if there was a law that required selling from one museum to another that it would go from one storage facility to another?

        If most museums have a lot of art on storage, that’s a distinct possibility, right? And a major, well-endowed, museum, might be able to outbid a regional museum, just for the right to stick it in storage.

        So my proposal is that any displayed piece that is sold must only be sold to someplace that will display it, and if that’s the Ottumwa Civic Center Museum of Agricultual History, which scrapes up $100 bucks, the selling museum will have to eat the loss.

        And since art kept in storage is obviously not benefitting the public, all art must be brought out of storage and displayed, or sold to a museum that will display it.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @saul-degraw “Why do you assume that if there was a law that required selling from one museum to another that it would go from one storage facility to another?”

        Huh? I don’t. Did you read what I wrote?Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @saul-degraw “I’d rather it be in storage of a museum who can take it out, put it on display, loan it to other museums for special tours and exhibits, etc. That way it stays on view by the public.”

        Despite the fact that I, too, would personally prefer they sell it to a museum, there is a disconnect between your fist and second sentence. “Can,” as is demonstrated by the way museums operate, does not necessarily result in “will.”

        What you are saying here is the same as saying it should be sold to a private collector, because a private collector can loan it out or donate it to another museum, and that way it stays on view by the public. Indeed that private collector *can* do so, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that she will.Report

  8. Avatar j r says:

    There is another issue here. @leeesq says this above:

    The Monet painting is accessible to the millions of residents who live within NYC’s metropolitan area and the millions that visit NYC every year. This is many more people that get to view it, at least potentially, than the number of people that would get to look at it if some rich person buys it.

    Is this necessarily true? Whenever I go to a traveling exhibit, there are paintings from multiple sources. Some are from museums and some are from private collections. In other words, sometimes museums own a piece and that piece spends most of its time in storage. And sometimes a private collector owns a piece and that collector loans out the piece to temporary exhibitions.

    Is anyone here familiar enough with the art/museum world to say something definitive about how much time private art spends hanging on some rich guy’s wall vs hanging on the wall in some public/semi-public space or in a traveling exhibit?Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to j r says:

      Depends on the private collector. Lord Palumbo allows you to tour Kentuck Knob, after all.
      so, um, you’d have to talk with ALL the collectors to figure out how much they’re really displaying…Report

  9. Good post. I don’t agree, but it’s a good post.

    That said, I strongly question the factual claim that museum-owned art is held in trust for the public. I don’t think this is right at all, except perhaps for publicly owned museums. In the case of privately owned and operated museums such as the Barnes Foundation and MoMA (which is as private as humanly possible – they don’t accept any public funding whatsoever), the art pretty clearly is owned outright by the museum. To the extent the museum has any obligations to the public with respect to the pieces it owns, those obligations are a function of their charter documents, which can vary wildly.

    In the case of the Barnes Foundation (398 Pa. 458, for those with access to Lexis/Westlaw), the reason that it was ultimately forced to open to the public in 1961 had nothing to do with the notion that the art was held in a public trust. Instead, the issue was two-fold: (1) that the Foundation was set up as a “public charity” for tax purposes; and more importantly, (2) that the Foundation’s formative documents implicitly ordered (and arguably expressly ordered) that the gallery be open to the public on at least a limited basis.

    The tax issue was important, but didn’t answer the ultimate question because the Trustees argued that they could operate as a “public charity” as long as they were providing students with an education. The argument on the tax issue did not assert that “public charity” status meant that the art or galleries were owned by the public, just that the Foundation’s status required it be able to prove that it was providing a public service. The Foundation said that its “public service” was education through its private school.

    That could have and would have been the end of it if the question was whether being a “public charity” automatically meant that the Foundation had to act as if its gallery was public property – quite clearly, I think, the Foundation would have won on that question and thus would have won the case (assuming it could have proven that it was separately acting as an educational institution, which is actually not clear, but which is irrelevant for our purposes).

    Instead, the reason it lost the case was that the court found that the documents that formed the Trust expressly set forth goals that could only be accomplished if the art gallery was open to the public, regardless of any separate “education” the Trust provided.

    In other words, the reason the gallery was forced to open, albeit on a limited basis, was that the Trustees were failing to abide by Barnes’ personal instructions, not because they were breaching some sort of public trust.

    The Detroit Institute of Art issue is quite fascinating, but ultimately it actually stands for the proposition that the intent of a museum’s private founders controls the acceptable uses of the collection, rather than the proposition that the collection is held in trust for the public. In that case, the argument (available here: to prevent the art from being sold was that the DIA was at least in part founded by a group of private citizens, with a particular charter it needed to abide by, and that it was established as a “private corporation,” (“DIA Corp.”) albeit one with an explicitly public purpose.

    The argument went on to indicate that, because of an adverse court ruling in 1915 against cooperation between the City of Detroit and DIA Corp., DIA Corp. transferred a bunch of its assets to be held in trust for it by the City. The rest of the argument kind of flows from there, but in essence the argument was that the art belonged to DIA Corp., with the City holding it in trust for DIA Corp. (which in turn had a charter dedicating it to serving the public) pursuant to various statutes and agreements.

    It’s not clear whether the court ultimately would have bought into this line of argument, but at the very least the line of argument seems to have been enough to force a successful settlement. Regardless, the argument wasn’t that the artwork was public property, but rather that it was private property of DIA Corp. which DIA Corp. had placed in the City’s trust subject to DIA Corp.’s (again, a private non-profit) charter.

    In the case of MoMA, it seems pretty clear that it is not holding the Monet in trust for the public, at least as a legal matter. It’s a purely private entity, albeit still a non-profit. It can charge what it wishes for admissions fees. Functionally, I have a hard time seeing how it is conceptually much different from a for-profit museum for any reason other than taxes. Unless there is a quirk in New York law I don’t know about, it has no legal obligation to even use the proceeds from the sale to obtain new pieces for its collection (moral obligations may be a different story), so long as it abides by its charter of course.Report

    • Thanks, Mark. That pretty much answers my question up above.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      @mark-thompson, I did a little google search to find out what the relevant New York state law was on the subject of who owns the art in museums and turned up this:

      The answer is that in New York, its complicated. Museums own their collections but not in the way that a private collector or gallery does even if the museum does not receive any public money. A museum has to follow strict guidelines in how the art is sold and the proceeds from the sale of a museum’s art can only be used for acquisition of more art or preserving or caring for an existing collection. In other words, MoMA can’t sell the Monet and divide the fourteen million among the trustees.

      In New York, museums might not technically hold art or their in trust for the public benefit but they don’t have full ownership rights of their art either. Even if they receive no public monies, they still must follow strict rules when it comes to deaccessioning their collections in how they do it and what they do with the proceeds. The way museums own their collections is between full ownership and holding it in trust.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Is there any indication that Moma doesn’t have free and clear title to the Monet poplar painting via the Jeffe donation? Its called a donation in the Slate link, not a loan permanent or otherwise. It seems to me that the law is more designed for antiquities and the like where ownership and provenance are murky because stuff from all over the world just wound up in 19th and early 20th century rich schmuck homes. (And john rocky jr himself did no small amount of pilfering in the interwar years, thats how we got the Cloisters, among other things)Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        @kolohe, the law explicitly covers how all museums in New York State are supposed to go about deaccessioning anything in their collections. No New York museum has free or clear title on any part of their collection. They may sell things from their collection but only if a particular procedure is followed and if the proceeds go to particular uses. New York museums only have limited ownership over their collections because the law places stricter controls over how they can go about selling their collections and what the proceeds could be used for.Report

      • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Interesting though I agree with @kolohe’s interpretation. I think that the restriction only really seems to apply as a default term for pieces where the extent of the museums title is murky for one reason or another. The big caveat I s the provision in the final subsection saying that any of the laws terms can be modified or disregarded by agreement with the seller/donor/lender.

        IOW, it seems like the focus is on protecting the wishes of the donor, first and foremost, rather than on treating the pieces as being quasi – public property.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        @mark-thompson, based on how MoMa is handling the sale of the Monet; they are certainly acting like this law applies to their entire collection in at least how they dispose of the property. They promised that the proceeds are only going to be used for acquisition and went through the entire step process for selling art from their collection.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Or to put it bluntly, I’m not sure of the law but I’m pretty certain that a museum can’t sell a painting and divide the proceeds from that sale among the trustees as bonuses in New York.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I imagine that museums that act in obvious bad faith when it comes to deacquisitioning will see such things as donations (of money and, perhaps more importantly, future Monets) dry up.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        @jaybird, plenty of universities have acted in such bad faith and got away with it. I’m not sure why museums would be different.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

        The target audiences are a little bit different as are the benefits provided to the people who benefit the most.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to LeeEsq says:

        @leeesq “Or to put it bluntly, I’m not sure of the law but I’m pretty certain that a museum can’t sell a painting and divide the proceeds from that sale among the trustees as bonuses in New York.”

        Hey, it’s a legal question I can address!

        The reason they can’t do this isn’t because they’re a museum — it’s because they are filed as a 501(c)(3). Having that tax status limits the amount of things they are able to do with assets, and one of those things is compensate a board of directors. (They can reimburse for various expenses, but the profit in the term “non-profit” has more to do with the board and other potential stakeholders than it does the organization’s balance sheet.)

        I don’t know enough to speak to your vs. Kolohe’s interpretation on NY State law, but FWIW there is a lot of case law that states that any non-profit that accepts a donation (as opposed to a gift) of money or property must use that donation in the way that the donator would reasonably have expected that donation to be made.

        For example, if you have a fundraiser for a the expenses of a new wing, you cannot take any money from that event and use it to give the staff a bonus, or even to purchase another painting for another wing.

        I bring this up because if the Monet was donated to MOMA, it’s quite possible that IRS guidelines stipulate that the museum can sell it to get more art, but that it can’t sell it to fund operations. This would be in keeping with IRS rules with other kinds of organizations that I am more familiar with. I know for example that if a non-profit college sells a work of art that was donated to “beautify the campus,” they must use those proceeds to do something that reasonably “beautifies the campus.”

        And on top of all that there is this: Most high ticket donations, like a Monet or its value in cash, are rarely given to any non-profit without a very strict set of very specific written demands from the person making the donation. So in addition to IRS and NY State Law, unless MOMA purchased the painting there is likely some set of individual restrictions on what they can and cannot do with proceeds from a possible sale.Report

      • Avatar Lyle in reply to LeeEsq says:

        What is the benefit to being a museum over a private gallery, just an exemption from property taxes and sales taxes on exemptions? If that is the case the museums do receive a benefit from the local and state government in the form of a tax exemption.Report

  10. @leeesq That may well be- I certainly can’t speak to the provenance of their ownership and original acquisition of the piece, so it’s certainly possible, even likely, that the statute applies here. My point is more about how the focus if the analysis is on the intent of donors and lenders rather than on any sense of quasi – public ownership.

    Also- I don’t think a ban in use for administrative expenses would be relevant to preventing your scenario of greedy trustees. That sort of self dealing would either be a violation of traditional trust law or it would general rules and regs for nonprofit status generally, and almost certainly both.

    I’m thinking more about prohibitions on sale proceeds to defray more legitimate administrative expenses.Report

  11. Avatar Chris says:

    “Deaccession” may be the most awkward neologism I’ve heard since “unboxing.”

    “Look, we’re museum curators. We can’t just say removing, selling, reducing, or subtracting, or even divesting, much less getting rid of. Wouldn’t be properly snobbish. We need a new word, a better word.”

    “I’ve got it! If putting things on the shelf is accession, then taking them of is un-accession.”

    “Let’s make it de-accesion.”


    Just like amateur tech reviewers on YouTube felt like “opening” didn’t have enough pizzazz.Report

  12. Avatar Lyle says:

    To be a bit contrary, if the museum retains the rights to digital images and to place them on the web, what is the real importance of the original. If the point is to see the image, then a good digital image should work as well as the original, and to boot be accessible anywhere in the world.

    Is the benefit to being a museum in New York State a tax exemption on their art, and a sales tax exemption on purchases? Clearly for having the restrictions placed upon them the museum must get some benefit versus just being a private gallery.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Lyle says:

      IMO, I’ve looked at very good photographs of paintings and sculptures and the actual paintings and sculptures. Looking at the actual painting or sculpture is a much more powerful and transcendent experience than a photograph. When I saw David or Rembrandt’s The Night Watch with my own eyes, I was transfixed in a way that a photograph did not. I looked upon Renoir paintings in person for hours at a time just absorbing the beauty of the paintings.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Lyle says:


      I agree with Lee. Art is not two-dimensional and flat. You can’t appreciate the texture that Jackson Pollock put into his paintings via computer screen. Nor can you appreciate the size and scope of certain paintings like Lee mentioned with Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. The art of Richard Serra is environment specific and meant to change how a person interacts with that environment.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Some art is two-dimensional and flat, isn’t it? Or at least near enough?Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        “Art is not two-dimensional and flat.”

        I think it’s more than that, though. There are 2-dimensional works of art, and I don’t think being able to look at them online or a book is the same as seeing them inhale life.

        You wouldn’t stop having live music because we can have mp3 players, and you wouldn’t stop having live theatre because we have youtube.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        “You wouldn’t stop having live music because we can have mp3 players, and you wouldn’t stop having live theatre because we have youtube.”

        One $50,000+ violin later, I bloody well hope people have stopped trying to play music that wasn’t written to be played by mortal hands. (To be fair, the bloke did win an award, even if he broke his violin doing it).Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Lyle says:

      you don’t happen to have a pro-grade monitor at home, do you? (I’m being nice and not asking if you have the radiology-grade models).

      Having it digitally isn’t a terribly good reproduction if you don’t have the equipment.Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Lyle says:

      Digital images don’t fully capture many paintings, and in a handful of cases (Jackson Pollack comes to mind) barely capture them at all. With many paintings, especially in modern art, there is a textural element from the brush strokes that is impossible to get across in a two-dimensional digital image, even if the image is a full-size print. That textural element is quite frequently something that the artist consciously wanted to emphasize. In other paintings, the brushstrokes are still a critical part of understanding what the artist did, even if they don’t directly affect the aesthetic – Seurat comes most obviously to mind here. Still other paintings use optical illusions that don’t quite work right in digital form, while others camouflage important elements (e.g., a demon lurking in the shadows) with subtle color changes that digital imagery doesn’t quite pick up. And, of course, with other paintings, there’s a sheer size factor that can only be appreciated in person.

      From an art history standpoint, you also pretty much need to see the brushstrokes in order to see how methods and thought processes developed, but if you’re only interested in aesthetics, this is probably not a relevant factor.

      There’s plenty of paintings (and, more so, photographs) for which digital imagery surely does a perfectly adequate job from a purely visual standpoint, but there’s also a huge number of paintings that lose very specific and important visual elements in digital imagery, which elements can only be seen in person.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        I’m pretty sure most art nowadays is designed to be viewed on a computer. Though we ought to respect those who use antiquated viewing equipment.

        A good monitor does make a hell of a difference — images designed to be viewed on a pro monitor look horrid otherwise.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        Aye, and you’re only focusing on paintings. Then there’s sculpture. Stanford’s casting of Rodin’s Gates of Hell looks neat in a picture, but unless you stand in front of it you cannot begin to get a sense of the scale and detail in it. I have stood in front of it and lost all sense of time examining all the many elements within it.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        Bah! tell me that’s not your upload.
        Jpegs are great for a lot of things, but lossless they are not.

        I don’t think we’re quite there on “modeling polygons” to get… THAT. But I hope we will be, and sooner rather than later.

        But bear in mind, you’re talking a casting. That’s something that can be duplicated, can’t it?

        I like the bronze better than the original, anyhow.Report

      • Avatar Lyle in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        Given the fact that many folks may choose not to travel or can not afford to travel, the virtual museum concept is growing. And yes you can make very large digital images, with appropriate technology up to gigabytes in size for example.
        Now of course I also find that crowds bother me I prefer listening to music at home over concerts both due to the hassle of getting there etc,
        As an example take the virtual tours of the 4 main basilicas of Rome with 360 degree views of points inside and outside the building, I suspect you see more than being there with the crowds etc.Report

  13. Avatar Don Zeko says:

    what, Scanners?Report