Done right, selling museum pieces can work – but probably not with Michelangelos

Posted on: October 1, 2020 by

This comment first appeared on The Art Newspaper website on 25 September 2020. It has been reproduced with the editorial staff’s kind permission.

Is the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) going to sell its Michelangelo? It seems a preposterous proposition, but these are rather preposterous times. The idea, apparently floated by a handful of Royal Academicians, came as a response to the dire economic forecast at the institution, which quickly needs to make up an £8m shortfall and has indicated that it may be forced to let 150 staff members go. What better lifeboat than the Taddei Tondo (see left), an oft-overlooked roundel of marble some say could fetch £100m or more?

Welcome to the slippery slope of deaccessioning. This is an area of grave concern for many in the museums sector. Museums were established for the purpose of maintaining collections for the benefit of the public and it is felt that attempts to chip away at collections are tantamount to a surrender of their very raison d’être.

There are of course rules in place to ensure museum boards do not sell the family jewels. These rules sometimes find their source in legislation, like in the different statutes governing UK national museums. For the RA, which is not a state institution but an independent charity, the more applicable source is charity law. And the core requirement of charity law is that any board, like the council governing the RA, acts in the best interests of the institution and of the public, which usually means keeping the collection intact.

There is also policy guidance from the sector. The UK Museums Association’s ethical codes have long favoured a presumption that items should be retained in the public domain. However, this presumption is balanced by the acknowledgment that responsible disposal can indeed occur, provided it is part of a museum’s long-term collections policy. It must also be managed systematically and transparently, while involving input from staff and the public. And a museum should only resort to a sale as a last resort, and only in exceptional circumstances, applying any proceeds to the benefit of the collection.

Are present times not exceptional? Memories of poorly orchestrated disposals come flooding to mind. An infamous recent example was the sale of a unique and stunning Egyptian Old Kingdom statue by Northampton Borough Council in 2014, netting a cool £7m to go towards an extension of the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery. This elicited much rebuke from the sector and, after the sale, the museum was booted from the Museums Association for five years and lost its accreditation with Arts Council England, putting future government grants in jeopardy. Sold at Christie’s to a private buyer, the piece has not been seen in public since.

A much earlier example involved the RA itself. This was the institution’s sale in 1962 of its Leonardo Cartoon. Unlike Northampton’s Egyptian statue, the work was kept in the public sphere, eventually acquired by the National Gallery at a discounted price: the Cartoon had only to travel a half-mile along Piccadilly to its new home in Trafalgar Square. Still, such situations often leave a bitter taste. The outcry over the RA’s actions made it to the halls of Parliament and sparked the creation of a parliamentary committee to look into collection ownership across the country.

In large part because of the chilling effect of the Northampton debacle, UK museums have been noticeably reticent in proceeding with deaccessioning. And, as the art historian Bendor Grosvenor has written in his column for The Art Newspaper, the fear of being tainted as an accomplice has meant that, in the rare event that an item is offered for sale, other institutions recoil in disgust, often resulting in the item being picked up by a private buyer and spirited off into the mists.

US museums have on the whole had a less compunctious approach to deaccessioning. They are not generally publicly owned but established as private foundations, heavily reliant on donations and endowments. This means, in times of want, there is little or no financial assistance from government. And without legislation controlling these institutions, the only legal restrictions come from the recondite annals of charity law. Because the “interests of the charity” depend on the particular aims of the museum as set out in its governing document, there will inevitably be situations in which selling one or more works will be compatible with the museum’s mission.

This does not mean there is no controversy over deaccessioning in the US—far from it. In 2018, the Berkshire Museum in Massachusetts was castigated for its sale of 40 works from its collection, including two notable Norman Rockwells, to alleviate its financial troubles. The sale was challenged by a group of museum members and donors through the courts, though the action eventually failed. In Canada, the same year saw the attempted sale by the National Gallery of an emblematic painting by Marc Chagall, which was eventually called off due to public opposition.

Even in North America, sales by museums remain heavily controlled by sector bodies. The Policy on Deaccession of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), a body made up of directors from across the US, Canada and Mexico, states that, while deaccessioning is a legitimate part of museum practice, it should only be undertaken to refine and improve collections. Funds received from a disposal cannot be used for operations or capital expenses, but only to acquire new works within the context of the museum’s acquisition policy.

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the major deficits incurred from the loss of ticket revenues, the rules have been temporarily loosened. As of April, the AAMD no longer requires the proceeds from deaccessioned art to go towards buying new art but will allow it to support the “direct care of the collection”. The exact meaning of this phrase is up for debate: it will be for each museum to decide what “direct care” means within its own policy. This new position, to remain in place until April 2022, does not allow the funds to be used for operating expenses and, according to the AAMD, is not intended to “incentivise deaccession”.

Despite these intentions, we are starting to see the impact of the shift in policy. Earlier this month, the Brooklyn Museum, one of the country’s great encyclopaedic museums, announced the sale of a dozen works, including paintings by Cranach, Corot and Courbet. The museum’s director says the proceeds generated will go into a fund that could be used for purposes such as storage, conservation, framing and—rather critically—staff salaries.

Could the same transpire in the UK? So far, despite the pandemic, there have not been attempts to expand the possibilities of deaccessioning, whether at the institutional or sector level. In any event, while disposal is recognised as acceptable as part of a museum’s long-term collections development policy (as the UK Museums Association code states), collections cannot be treated as financial assets. One or several objects can be sold, but it should be part of a well-planned strategy, not as a quick fix. The decision to sell should always be a last resort, curatorially justified and pursued with the utmost transparency. And it will almost never involve selling masterpieces. As an auctioneer once told me, deaccessioning means selling B works by C artists. When practised that way, it can work. But likely not with Michelangelos.

So will the RA part with the Taddei Tondo? Probably not. The institution’s collection development policy, last reviewed just before the pandemic in February, takes a categorical stance, saying that the museum will not undertake disposal “motivated principally by financial reasons”. So if a cabal of Academicians manages to persuade the Council that a sale is necessary to stop redundancies, the first step would have to be an overhaul of the collection policy, a scattergun approach that has not worked for others in the past. There would have to be a curatorial reason for disposing of the Tondo, and the sale would have to be treated as a last resort.

Of course, the world is a very different place than it was in February. Policy motivations that held true then may not hold true today. Nevertheless, shifts in policy at an institutional level must be rational and well thought-out. It is quite possible we will see more UK museums—especially small ones already struggling financially before the pandemic began—give serious consideration to selling one or more collection items to save themselves from the abyss. If they do, however, deaccessioning has to follow a process that is clear and transparent, and that fits within the larger collection policy. There can be no fire sales.

The cutout image of the Taddei Tondo above is provided c/o Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 2.5 PawelMM, Ham II.