Museums, Art, and the Public Good: Some Thoughts on Deaccessioning
Have you ever wanted a Monet? MoMa is selling an 1887 Monet at auction in early February. The estimate selling price is 14 million and the proceeds of the sale go to MoMa’s acquisition fund.
Art Critic Jerry Saltz is incensed at the sale because he thinks there is a good chance that this painting will never be seen by the public again. Saltz recognizes that museums have limited amounts of display and storage space but his preferred solution would be that museums should only sell art to other museums.
Museums are weird entities. Museums hold art in trust for the public, they do not own the art outright. They are also often under the regulatory control of the state Attorney General’s office and various municipal governments. However, most states seem to maintain a very hands-off relationship with museums unless they do something really bad. The best example I know of was the decades long struggle between the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office and the Barnes Foundation. Barnes was a Philadelphia-era man who earned a fortune in the Pharmaceutical business and bought a massive collection of art. When he died, he tried to put the art under a seal where it could only be viewed by scholars. The Pennsylvania Attorney General first got the public access in 1961 but it was under very controlled circumstances. The public did not get full access until sometime in the 2000s.
MOMA’s official reasoning for selling the Monet is that the 1887 piece “is an example of an Impressionist style that precedes the starting point of the museum’s painting collection.” There is an art history reasoning behind this because you can make a reasonable argument that Modern Art started with the 1913 Armory Show. But I don’t completely buy MoMa’s argument. MoMa holds and shows plenty of paintings from the late 1880s and I doubt that they are in a rush to sell all of them because they are among the most popular paintings at the Museum. I doubt that MoMa would ever dream of getting rid of all of their Monets.
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. I like Saltz’s idea of only allowing museums to sell to each other because it keeps the art in public view. A recent study shows that inaccessibility is a serious reason for why people don’t go to museums and other cultural institutions/events more. I don’t see how accessibility is helped by selling a piece of art to a rich person to buy more art for the same museum. I can see how accessibility is helped if MoMA can sell the Monet to a museum that does not have any and in a location that is not New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia, or other major cities with large museums and ample sized collections.