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Deaccessioning Museum Works

Brown Bag Lunch with Richard Brodsky – October 9, 2009

Deaccessioning Museum Works

New York Legislative Assemblyman Richard Brodsky came to the Cardozo School of Law on October 9, 2009 to discuss the issue of deaccessioning, a hot topic in the art world. In the ‘financial crisis’, museums in New York and around the world are selling off works in order to maintain funds. In one of the more publicized local instances, Brandeis University attempted to sell its entire Rose Collection. The President of the Rose Art Museum said that, given the recession, “we had no choice.” Two donors of works have initiated an action against the University, and the litigation is still pending.

In December 2008, the Board of Regents adopted emergency measures to help regulate this deaccessioning phenomenon. On March 17, 2009, a new Bill (A06959) was introduced by in the New York State Assembly that would install more permanent regulations. Brodsky is the sponsor of the Bill.

The Bill would require each collecting institution to adopt and publish a binding collection management policy and mission statement. Acquired items that are consistent with the mission statement must be accessioned to the collection, and the institution must publish a register of all items in the collection. Generally speaking, an item may only be deaccessioned if it no longer fits within the scope of the mission statement. If an item is successfully deaccessioned, proceeds from its disposal may only be used to acquire another item for the collection and/or for the preservation of items in the collection.

It seems wrong for lawmakers to be making largely artistic choices on the behalf of cultural institutions, but Brodsky argues that the Bill would not enable legislative authorities to make such choices. Instead, he insists that the lawmakers are only requiring public disclosure of a clear mission statement. Within that mission, the museums are largely autonomous. If a work is not within the statement, it may be deaccessioned. If the museum wants to alter its statement so that it no longer encompasses certain works, then it must do so publicly. Collections are held in the public trust, Brodsky argues, and they must be maintained for the public benefit. The impetus driving this Bill is the fear that institutions will sell works to keep the doors open, and institutions will be left with open doors and no paintings.

However, Brodsky admitted that he did not know how real or imminent the dangers were of these museums going bankrupt. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been one of the biggest critics of the Bill, and it seems difficult to argue that the Met should not be able to sell some of the works that have been sitting in its vault for decades in order to raise money. Even if such a work were to fall outside of the mission statement and could be deaccessioned, it would not be of much benefit if the proceeds of the disposal could only be used to acquire new works. There’s always the danger that if certain works can’t be sold, these institutions will be left with lots of paintings but closed doors. The debate continues.


Closely related to the deaccessioning debate is the issue of disposal of cultural property. Disposal is also necessary to keep collections manageable, especially as collections expand and resources shrink. University College London, in London, England, held an exhibit “Disposal? Rethinking What to Keep in UCL Collections”, from 19-31 October that dealt with the issue.

The University has found itself with a melange of non-valuable items, so it put on the exhibition to ask visitors to decide which items should stay and which items should go. The items on display include things such as Agatha Christie’s picnic basket, clay samples from the Channel Tunnel rail link, and the right feet of some Texan cowboy boots. The exhibit acknowledges that although we might dismiss the value and importance of these works, a museum nevertheless has a special responsibility for handling these items. Such institutions now hold what has been lost to the public though private sales. Disposal must be thoughtful.

Meanwhile the University is implementing a system that largely resembles the Brodsky Bill. The University has created a Cultural Property Policy, and only works that fall outside that policy may be disposed of. All items that are part of the Policy will be placed on its public Register.

– Caroline Camp