To survive the economic disaster brought on by a pandemic, museums can now consider doing what used to be grounds for public shaming — sell their art.
To Ethan Klepetar, president of the Berkshire Museum’s board of trustees, that is wonderful news. “This is really, really important,” he said about a decision by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) to suspend penalties and relax guidelines on how institutions can use restricted funds. “When you are hit hard, you need to do things to find a way to survive,” said Klepetar in an interview.
Followers of the art world will remember the bitter controversy that broke out a few years ago over plans by the Berkshire Museum, a small institution in Pittsfield, to sell some of its own artwork. After winning a legal battle, more than 20 works — including two by Norman Rockwell — were ultimately auctioned off. Museum trustees said they needed the revenue for the sake of the museum’s long-term economic viability. According to Klepetar, the selling of the artwork — known as deaccessioning — brought in $53.25 million. Of that, $45 million was put into what he called a “quasi-endowment fund,” and the balance was put toward renovations and other capital projects.
However, for taking its artwork to market, and putting the proceeds toward something other than the acquisition of new works, the Berkshire Museum was sanctioned by the AAMD. That’s the same organization that’s now loosening its rules, by allowing museums to “use the proceeds from deaccessioned works of art . . . to support the direct care” of their collection. As Sebastian Smee, The Washington Post’s art critic, notes, “The language here is careful. But there’s no doubt: This represents a major departure, and a recognition that many art museums are in free fall.”
Klepetar said the sanctions — which were supposed to make the Berkshire Museum a pariah — had no practical effect. So lifting them now “doesn’t make any difference” to the museum. What does make a difference is the financial security the Berkshire Museum now enjoys — which would not exist if trustees allowed the rigid old rules to restrict their thinking. Without the deaccessioning, “We would be out of business. We would be another victim of the pandemic. We would absolutely not be able to open ever again," he said.
When it sanctioned the Berkshire Museum, the AAMD issued a statement that said, “Selling art to support any need other than to build a museum’s collection fundamentally undermines the critically important relationships between museums, donors, and the public.” Now, as the association announced its revised guidelines, Brent Benjamin, president of the group and director of the Saint Louis Art Museum, told ArtForum, “This is a crisis without precedent in our lifetime, with global implications and with a timeline that unfolds as we live it."
Selling off historic works of art is not a decision that should be taken lightly, particularly if the sale leads to closing off the public’s ability to view treasured pieces of heritage. But museums also need flexibility; if they have to shutter from financial strain, their collections will probably end up dispersing anyway, and not necessarily to owners who will make the works accessible to the public.
For sure, a museum’s relationship with donors is important, as is its role putting seminal works of art in front of wide audiences. But so is the quest to survive. It has taken a pandemic for the art world to rethink the balance between the two, and the flexibility to change with the times is warranted.
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