Reprivatizing Fine Art In The Name Of Equality

Last year, citing financial strains imposed by the lockdown, the Association of Art Museum Directors relaxed its code of practice for "deaccessioning" - the sale of permanent collection pieces to fund museum expenses, maintenance and salaries. Shortly after that, the Brooklyn Museum began selling off European pieces like Lucas Cranach the Elder’s 16th-century painting Lucretia which had been in the museum for a century. It had been donated by A. Augustus Healy, a leather merchant whose collection included work by Rubens, Delecroix and many others. Also sold were Gustave Courbet’s Bords de la loue avec rochersà gauche, bequeathed in 1929 by Horace Havemeyer, the son of famous Impressionist collectors who came from sugar refining and merchant family wealth, and Henrik Willem Mesdag’s seascape Marine, bequeathed by William H. Herriman after his death in 1918, a major contributor to the American Academy in Rome and to the Brooklyn Museum. And there have been many others.

Bringing fine art of this kind, once reserved only for the eyes of the rich, into public trust for the benefit of the people was one of modern society’s great achievements. It was an aspirational model of the public good entirely different to the one that has emerged in America since, in which the new identity politics (as distinct from genuinely multicultural appreciation of the great cultural achievements of the world) the market and the sweeping away of aesthetic hierarchy in the name of equality are all advanced. These trends in the art world suggest that process through which we brought fine art to the masses is going into reverse, as museums sell off once-bequeathed works to the international rich. The latest reason given for the sell off may be lockdown expenses but looking at the debates that have gone on inside the art museum world it suggests that both ideological and economic motivations are involved at once.

Thomas P. Campbell, director of the fine arts museum in San Fransisco, warned the decision to loosen the deaccession regulations may have “opened a Pandora’s box” and said “I fear that what was instituted as a temporary measure will become the norm; that the relaxation of the guidelines will undermine the AAMD’s authority to police deaccessioning in the future; that donor trust will be damaged; that boards and civic entities may take advantage of the new guidelines to evade their fiduciary responsibilities”. Interestingly he added “it was also the culmination of years of lobbying within the organisation by a group of influential museum directors” though he didn’t name names.

He then said “in the polarised climate of our time, one can envisage this becoming a new frontier in the culture wars, with extremists on the right and left calling for change.” Given extremists on the right have no institutional cultural power, it’s obvious which direction this is most likely to move in. Perhaps in the worst of all possible worlds, it could lead to critics of public spending on the right and cultural ideologues on the left both getting their way simultaneously, leading to an accepted economic and political rationale for normalizing selling off their best fine art works and anything deemed too male, pale and stale - which also happen to be worth millions.

Different forms of deaccessioning seem to have become more common since the 1970s, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art sold works by “Rousseau, Pierre Bonnard, Juan Gris, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir” according to this interesting piece in Art News. The trend of deaccessioning continued on in the 80s when “MoMA had sold a Giorgio de Chirico, a Piet Mondrian, and a Pablo Picasso at Sotheby’s New York in November that year, together collecting $13.6 million, and works by Claude Monet, Wassily Kandinsky, Renoir, and Picasso were traded privately by Swiss dealers Thomas Ammann and Ernst Beyeler. The private sale prices were not disclosed." Then in the 2000s the trend started to gain some negative public attention as it became more widely reported. To give one short example, “In 2005, the New York Public Library revealed plans to sell Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits (1849). Controversially, the Hudson River School masterpiece went not to a museum, but to a private collector: Walmart heiress and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art founder Alice Walton, who bought it for $35 million.”

Then came the trend of explicitly politicized selling and phasing out works in the name of diversity in the 2010s. The Baltimore Museum of Art became “a pioneer.” In 2020 they sold “a Warhol, a Brice Marden, and Still through Sotheby’s, in an effort intended to raise $65 million... The backlash against the museum is ongoing. Eleven former trustees have signed an open letter calling for an investigation by the Maryland attorney general, two board members have resigned, and two former chairmen have rescinded pledged gifts.”

Martin Gammon, author of the book Deaccession and Its Discontents has attempted to tackle the issue of deaccession, arguing that it shouldn’t be a forbidden practice because of the legitimate need for phasing out low value work taking up storage space and some other similar examples, but he said “selling major works of art under the cover of calls to restitute “inequality” is certainly not one of them, and it is quite dispiriting that the museum profession has not loudly condemned this reckless proposal at face value, as a fateful step towards the wholesale commodification of museum collections…”

He called this increased trend disturbing and said it was leading to an “onslaught of unbridled commodification by a few museums.” Referring specifically to Baltimore, he said that their stated reason “frankly does not come close to passing the smell test” because, in short, they retained lesser works but sold a high economic value piece by the same artist. He concluded “while there is simply no defensible curatorial rationale for this deaccession, the only remaining one is, sadly, pecuniary.”

Curators at Baltimore Asma Naeem and Katy Seigel hit back at critics in the Art Newspaper, accusing them of “a fundamental misunderstanding—or rejection—of the equity-based vision, values and considerations” adding “equity and diversity make history fairer.” Holding up the classics only serves to “affirm a seemingly static Western artistic pantheon… Too many critics routinely enlist a white and privileged few tied to—dependent on—the status quo.” Siegel is the author of Since ’45: America and the Making of Contemporary Art, a Contributing Editor at Artforum and a member of the Editorial Board at The Brooklyn Rail, among other things. She co-authored another piece after the riots saying massive and righteous protests do the difficult work of forcing the country’s largest institutions to change, they inevitably call cultural institutions into question too” and that museum managers had to daily find ways to “undo centuries of inequity”.

Given so many of these pieces were in the public trust, don’t the public at least have a right to know what will happen to them and who purchased them? As a museum lover but an outsider to the inner workings and no doubt power politics of that world, I wonder if a few clever museum directors who value these pieces could make it the ethos of their institutions, underwritten by binding legal agreements, to defy the national norm and ensure that art works bequeathed to them will remain in the public trust. They would have a monopoly on older art and fine art collections from donors while museums who have run with the deaccessioning trend will have lost that trust and will inevitably become less popular and less respected for having chased fashions and short term economic gain. If some workaround like that is not possible then it may be for the best that these works end up on the private walls of Russian oligarchs or the Chinese new rich, where they will at least be safe in countries that appreciate them.