Free the Art! Sell the Art!

Countless works of art are locked in museum basements. Why not put them back on the open market?


Deaccession is a classic euphemism. When I first heard it, I assumed it was a parody of bureaucracy-speak or a flimsy attempt at linguistic camouflage, like getting a break-up note that says, "I'm not leaving you, honey; I'm just failing to disexit the relationship." I assume it was intended to ease the blow of a headline. If a museum of art "dumps," "offloads," "sells," "liquidates," or just "gets rid of" some of its holdings, that sounds like the museum is in financial difficulties. But if we call it "deaccessioning," some coiner of weasel words decided, then no one will really mind or even notice.

People notice anyway.

It is widely acknowledged that there can be legitimate reasons for a museum to trim its collection—for example, to repatriate looted artworks to their native lands. Indeed, deaccessioning is often justified on political grounds. Last year, when the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) proposed to auction off Warhol's Last Supper and abstractions by Clyfford Still and Brice Marden at a total anticipated value of $65 million, the curators justified it by gesturing to the institution's new "equity-based vision." The sales, they said, were part of a "rigorous reimagining" of the BMA's "art historical and institutional ethos," suggesting that they were specifically deleting works by white men in order to create a more diverse collection.

Even so, the proposed sale generated a lot of outrage. The Los Angeles Times' art critic, Christopher Knight, called it "vandalism," "an ugly swindle," a "colossal art museum scandal," and a "cringe-inducing carelessness" intended to "trash the art collection." Knight argued that sales from a museum's collection should never be used to fund its operating expenses, as if every museum in the world had unlimited funds and thus the luxury of holding on to everything forever.

Knight isn't alone. Many commentators believe that no museum should ever disobtain any significant work of art except to repatriate it—particularly when the museum proposes to put the work back onto the private market. The idea appears to be that museums should have all the art.

The underlying justification for that is the admirable notion that all the important art should be available for the public to view and for scholars to study. If it is put up for auction, it is said, it might just disappear.

It also might not, of course. Some of the most aggressive buyers on the art market, for example, are private collections operating museums, such as Mitchell and Emily Wei Rales' Glen-stone in Potomac, Maryland. Many or most major collectors show the work they own in different contexts, including at major public museums.

In any case, the argument that major museums should have all the important art because it then will be available for public view is detached from reality. That's not how these institutions operate. At any given time, the Guggenheim displays about 2 percent of its collection. In 2015, according to the BBC, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) was showing 24 of its 1,221 works by Picasso, one of its 145 by Ed Ruscha, nine of its 156 Mirós. Many less familiar but important artists are kept completely in storage, virtually all of their work invisible.

My partner, Jane Irish, is a painter. In 2013, in a complex transaction, her gallery sold her anti-war painting Operation RAW Tableau to a collector, who donated it immediately to the Hirshhorn Museum in D.C., the whole process shepherded along by curators at the museum. That's a fairly typical way for a work to enter a museum collection. The collector specifically believed that the work, a historical treatment of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, ought to be on display in D.C. The museum appeared to agree.

Jane was happy about the transaction at the time. Not only is it a nice résumé item to be in the Hirshhorn's collection, but the heart of her decadeslong project is bringing attention to the courage of anti-war veterans. Though the work was about Vietnam, it was made in the context of the war on terror; it commented on the situation obliquely. But throughout the Iraq and Afghan wars, even as new anti-war veterans' groups emerged, the Hirshhorn never showed the painting. She has not herself seen it since the sale. She has no idea where it is. The average art patron who might be interested in her work will never know it exists.

It's over there somewhere, in a vault or an offsite storage facility. Possibly she could arrange to see it herself by making a series of appointments. Possibly a scholar could access it through some elaborate request process. But no one is going to run into it unexpectedly and become interested.

She had a similar experience with the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Many people have had similar experiences; it is typical of artists whose reputation is relatively high, but who are not superstars. It's almost as though these museums are buying works of art in order to hide them away.

The sculptor Scott Burton died of AIDS in 1989, as his reputation and the prices of his stone tables and chairs were rising, and left his estate to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), an act of generosity for which the museum declared itself grateful. Burton didn't want his work auctioned off on the private market after his death, because he wanted it to be publicly accessible rather than to be lawn furniture for rich people's gardens. That was something of the point of his art, which tried to blur the distinction between the aesthetic and the practical. Burton wanted to make works of art that people could use.

But MOMA appears to be just as sensitive to pricing as private collectors are. As Burton's prices sank in the 2010s, MOMA stored its holdings. Burton's work has been broadly influential, particularly on "environmental artists" who work in stone and other natural materials, but he never got the retrospective he imagined.

If Burton wanted his work shown, he would have been better off willing it to an estate with guidelines for public and private sale. I'm not sure whether a privately owned work is more likely to be on public view than a work in a major museum's collection, nor do I know how exactly one would go about measuring this. But it's not obvious that the comparison favors public museums.

The world's art economy was worth something like $65 billion in 2019, but it slumped to about $50 billion in 2020. Though the market is now rebounding, the COVID-induced decline in museum attendance led the Association of Art Museum Directors to relax its guidance on deaccessioning. For a temporary period, it would not "censure or sanction" museums that used money raised by selling art for general operating expenses, as opposed to future acquisitions.

New York's Metropolitan Museum—which displays less than 5 percent of its holdings—estimates its COVID-related losses at $150 million, for example. It therefore proposes to auction prints and photographs by Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, and others at Christie's. The Brooklyn Museum has been particularly active in the relaxed atmosphere, auctioning old masters and impressionists with Sotheby's.

Smaller institutions have had proportionately greater budget crises. The di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art in Napa Valley, which emphasizes artists from northern California, has faced a series of semibiblical plagues. The Nuns Fire damaged the grounds in 2017; there was an earthquake in 2018; and now there's COVID-19. At one point it was rumored that the di Rosa was going to sell many of its most valuable works, including sculptures by Mark di Suvero. The artist himself and many others protested vociferously, but the di Rosa did eventually deaccession works by some lesser-known artists.

When the pandemic is over, the Association of Art Museum Directors will presumably return to its traditional position: Even if an institution has gone through what the di Rosa Center has been through, the only legitimate reason it can deaccession works is to fund future acquisitions. This seems not just unrealistic but undesirable. It suggests a steady accretion of art in museum basements, with the officers upstairs selling materials only to buy more, and then probably only to one another.

Knight compares the recent wave of deaccessions to internet scammers selling ersatz COVID cures, taking advantage of people in a vulnerable moment in order to make money. A number of commentators have accused museums of using the pandemic as an excuse to get rid of work.

That charge strikes me as bizarre. I can't imagine that museum directors are looking for gratuitous excuses to get rid of Warhols; any collection is more distinguished with some Warhols than without them. The idea that someone is sitting at the National Gallery rubbing his hands and going, "Now's our chance to auction off that Titian!" is implausible.

I can well imagine them saying "We're out of storage space," though.

In one patch, the upper end of the art world looks like a classic market, with supply and demand establishing prices as private galleries and auction houses connect sellers and buyers. Other zones seem socialist, with governments as primary patrons, as in national or municipal galleries, and with state agencies in charge of installing works in many public spaces. And in a third bit, the art world looks like almost nothing in economic theory: It's an archipelago of foundations, corporate or billionaire funding sources, and public-private bureaucracies, each with somewhat different emphases and purposes.

The Baltimore Museum of Art did not sell those works after all, thanks to "the generosity" of contributors, including major donations from the Rouse Foundation and from the collector Eileen Harris Norton. Such fundraising methods are not usually available to manufacturers, or for that matter to government agencies. The contributions lifted the BMA out of the grubby world of buying and selling (though they left it with its white-guy problem).

The mixed model has its strengths. It populates many sites, from public megamuseums and smaller private ones to galleries and public squares and private homes, with many sorts of works. If this leads to problems—for example, to concentrations of some of the good art in the hands of wealthy people, or to banal public art sponsored by governments, or to obscure and problematic lines of patronage—it also leads, overall, to a pretty wide public access to a pretty good range of works at reasonable cost.

It would be desirable to enhance this: to have more good art more widely available to more people more of the time. That, really, should be the goal of public art policy, and it ought to be the goal of the Association of Art Museum Directors as well. And there's one result that they therefore should try to avoid: funneling all the art into the vaults beneath the Met.

Deaccessioning, in at least some cases, means setting art free from a dungeon, paroling beauty back into the outside world. We may not be entirely certain what will happen to a particular work after a museum unbuys it, though valuable objects tend to be preserved no matter who owns them. But overall, it'll be better for everyone, museum and patron alike, if the art keeps circulating.