Museums, universities, churches, hospitals, and corporations are selling some or all of their art collections to bring in much-needed cash to make up for dramatic losses in their investment portfolios, declining sales of consumer goods, rising costs, and decreased contributions. In recent weeks, Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts, announced it would close the Rose Art Museum and sell the museum’s art collection; and the National Academy Museum sold several major 19th-century paintings as an alternative to selling its building on Fifth Avenue in New York City. As a result of taking actions it knew would provoke museum professionals, the National Academy resigned its membership in the Association of Art Museum Directors. The Academy was later censured by the American Association of Museums.
The debate about whether non-profit institutions should “deaccession” artwork from their collections has been going on for decades. For example, years ago the National Academy sold a painting to the Columbus Museum of Art (CMA), in Ohio, that Thomas Eakins had given the Academy to fulfill his obligation for membership. The CMA subsequently sold the painting, titled The Wrestlers, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Questions were raised about the National Academy’s right to require a donation from an artist and then sell that painting, but the two sales of The Wrestlers were acceptable to museum professionals because the profits were used to either maintain or refine public art collections, not to raise money for operations.
As the current recession deepens, more and more institutions are questioning whether the art on their walls is more important to their core mission than providing education, religious services, or health care and salaries for their employees. Like most artists, my initial reaction to this latest round of discussions was to point out that great art should be respected for its potential to educate, heal, inspire, and enlighten; and that art shouldn’t be thought of as just a financial asset to be bought and sold like stocks and real estate. Furthermore, I wondered if the institutions selling their treasures had a moral obligation to respect the artists and collectors who donated the artwork for the express purpose of enriching the lives of students, patients, parishioners, or visitors.
However, as a citizen and taxpayer, I have to ask myself what decision I would make if faced with a choice between selling a painting or closing a school. One would like to think there are reasonable alternatives, but in these tough times it’s increasingly difficult to find them.
I’d like to know how you might respond if faced with these tough choices, either as an artist who donated artwork for public education, enjoyment, and preservation; or as a board member faced with rising costs and dwindling resources.
M. Stephen Doherty
PS: The responses to my recent blog about artists’ studios have been very helpful in planning our special issue, so I taped the following short video.